Have you received the good news? The news that the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble's All Can Work is the First Great Record of 2018?
I wrote as much on Twitter, don't you know, which is the truest of tokens of truth.
All Can Work releases today [January 26] via New Amsterdam Records, which is a perfect place for it, being as the album is in part a sly, gentle slap in the face to genre. It is a fundamentally fine jazz record that, often as not, sounds nothing like a "jazz record." (New Amsterdam, while commonly pegged as specializing in something such as "contemporaryAltNewClassical", eschews such labels and has a solid history of supporting releases from or adjacent to the "jazz" corner of the galaxy, e.g., Darcy James Argue's Secret Society and exotic creatures such as Will Mason Ensemble and Battle Trance.)
John Hollenbeck is a profluent drummer and composer, collaborating far and wide with groups both large and smaller. This is his third release with his own eponymous big band. All Can Work displays the core virtues that make a “great record”: it gives pleasure, it offers variety and surprise, it rewards repeat listening, and it is a satisfying whole, most particularly enjoyable when consumed, in sequence, as such. Those same virtues inform well-crafted live performances, in any genre, and All Can Work performed straight through would be a super solid show.
The curtain-raising "lud" is not obviously a jazz piece at all: brass and winds sweep slow chords across chittering tuned percussion, in a manner akin to that of many a contemporary chamber group. It serves to clear the aural palate nicely, in preparation for the first major course.
“All Can Work” is tribute and memorial to Laurie Frink—trumpeter, educator and mentor to many another player, and longtime Hollenbeck collaborator and band member—who died of cancer in 2013. It is a song, an excursive setting of words drawn from Frink's email messages to Hollenbeck, a sketch of a cherished friend and of a musician's love for her craft and companions (and theirs for her). Theo Bleckmann is the singer, guilelessly weaving through biography, joy, fear, surprise, speculatiove philosophy and more, to reach a simple and affecting farewell:
I will miss you all and especially the music
There follow two non-Hollenbeck compositions with which Hollenbeck has his way as arranger/reinventor. “Elf” takes its title and raw musical material from a Billy Strayhorn piece, subsequently retooled through Duke Ellington as “Isfahan.” Themes that are straightforward in most prior versions are here smeared, reshaped and relished as a tumbling burble topped with high woodwind ululations.
Kenny Wheeler's “Heyoke” was originally a quartet piece [on Gnu High (ECM 1976), with Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette], but it thrives in its new large-band manifestation. The original begins with an enticing melody, stated by Wheeler on flugelhorn and then passed and played with around the group for roughly ten minutes; there is a pause for breath, then an extended, more urgent and even more freely improvisatory segment of the same length, subsiding in roughly its last 45 seconds to a sort of clockwork tick-tock call and response motif. Hollenbeck’s re-version starts with that clockwork, extending and inflating it for more than five minutes before the lyrical “Heyoke” melody is allowed to surface, to shine a bit, and then to subside back into the primordial broth, adrift over some mellifluous Theo Bleckmann vocalise.
Three Hollenbeck originals follow. “this kiss”, per the composer, is drawn from Romeo and Juliet, foregrounding the exuberance of the Young Love plot, with the Violence and Death plot serving as a sort of lurking descant. In “from trees”, the preposition in the title is the important bit: the piece moves steadily away from forested things into a chiaroscuro-noir urban nightscape, easing through a slippery semi-waltz on its way to a chugging slow boogie of an ending. [Hollenbeck’s liner notes—which are interesting enough to warrant obtaining a physical copy in order to read them, but which I had not looked at before writing that sentence—reveal the inspiration for the piece to be the paintings of Piet Mondrian, and particularly the path from his early studies of trees to the grid paintings for which he is best known, in particular the late “Broadway Boogie Woogie”.]
Theo Bleckmann returns to words in “Long Swing Dream”, speaking rather than singing an extended excerpt from the diaries of Cary Grant, in which the actor describes and endorses his experiences with LSD, while the band in its lowest registers pulses beneath.
For an encore? A rousing and savory arrangement of Kraftwerk’s “The Model”, shimmying naughtily like a Weimar a-go-go show.
The year is new and the remaining months hold who knows what surprises musically, but All Can Work is all but guaranteed a high-ranking spot on my personal List when the year is old and done. I have been returning to it regularly for weeks now, and custom has thus far failed to stale its infinite variety. Definitely a keeper, recommended without hesitation for any with ears to hear it.
All Can Work releases via New Amsterdam Records on January 26, 2018. This post is based on recurrent listening to a review CD received from the label, but the blogger has since put his money where his post is by purchasing a digital copy.