John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble - "No Boat" (Eternal Interlude)
John Hollenbeck’s second Large Ensemble album, Eternal Interlude, is an even more rewarding experience than 2005’ A Blessing. It finds the group exploring a wide variety of lean and opulent textures and expanding the palette of the percussionist’s typically complex and fascinating compositions.
The monumental title track’s opening bristles with tension in the service of a series of multi-timbral chords that shimmer with soft piano, swelling winds and malletted percussion. Hollenbeck’s orchestration, always intriguing in both his large ensemble and his Claudia Quintet, has taken a bold leap forward, most apparent in the way high flutes float over the morphing swells and ebbs. The main melodic material mixes romanticism and modernity in a brew of rhythmic surprise, but the piano keeps interrupting it with smart little arpeggios that later become a more integral part of the structure. There’s so much happening in these opening minutes that a more analytical study seems necessary, so multifarious are the morphing timbres. Gradually, and most enigmatic, the voice of Theo Bleckmann slides out of the transparency, most apparent just before the first major change and organ interlude. As regular rhythms become more pronounced and the volume increases, the melody is treated in fully harmonized orchestration.
These timbral concerns pervade the rest of the disc, but this is not simply an album of heads and solos. A notable exception is Ellery Eskelin’s scorching tenor saxophone contributions on “Perseverance,” but tightly composed passages abound. These are constantly changing forms that share elements with jazz, progressive rock and modern classical music. The opening of “Guarana” goes way outside the boundaries of conventional tonality, sporting little whoops and yips over tantalizing percussion, while the composition proper drives relentlessly forward on a sinewy melody. By contrast, the diminutive “No Boat” glides forward, looms briefly in gorgeous washes of harmony and fades as quickly as it came, sounding like updated Berg with a hint of minimalism for good measure. Radical yet somehow touchingly simple, it’s a perfect album closer.
A dense recording like Eternal Interlude simply doesn’t work if improperly engineered, and luckily, the production is stunning. Each sound is balanced, clear in context without sacrificing unity. Of course, conductor J.C. Sanford’s role is paramount, and he brings these pieces to life. This is one of the most satisfying and continually fascinating large ensemble discs I’ve heard in some time, a real treat from start to finish.