John Hollenbeck Credit: Scott Friedlander

With every passing year percussionist John Hollenbeck has upped his game as a composer and arranger, writing increasingly ambitious material for his two primary groups: the chamber-music-like Claudia Quintet and the richly orchestrated Large Ensemble. He’s a devoted student of jazz’s big-band tradition, cleaving unapologetically to ambitious composers and arrangers such as his longtime mentor Bob Brookmeyer. Earlier this year his Large Ensemble dropped its strongest album yet, All Can Work (New Amsterdam), which resonates more for me with every listen—it rarely connects directly with conventional big-band jazz, focusing instead of vibrant harmony, intricate moving parts, and bursts of sonic color. It’s a dense and varied piece of work, dazzling its detail and harmonic richness, and rather than incorporating a thematic thread or organizing principle, it relies for its cohesion on the strength of the pieces and how they’re sequenced.

Hollenbeck draws inspiration from all over the place. He’s a lofty thinker who also recognizes the power of spontaneous creativity. In his liner notes he describes the opening number, a succinct, oddly pulsing tone poem called “Lud,” as “one of those intangible pieces that popped out recently. I don’t have an explanation for it but I wish I could write more music like this.” He wrote the title track in memory of trumpeter Laurie Frink, a longtime member of the group who died from cancer in 2013 at age 61; he drew its lyrics from e-mail responses she’d sent him over the years, and they’re sung with characteristic clarity and inventiveness by Theo Bleckmann, who appears on several of the album’s pieces. The magisterial horns and strangely wending melodies work an alchemy with the lyrics—whose quietly accommodating, enthusiastic tone suggests a person who finds a way to make things work, no matter the circumstances—in order to create a surprising tribute to the human spirit.

Hollenbeck composed “This Kiss” after seeing a production of Romeo and Juliet, and he imagined scoring a scene for a film version, with motifs representing the characters and a theme inspired by one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. “From Trees” pays homage to early paintings by Piet Mondrian, who made a study of trees years before his famous grids, and the music seeks to evoke the artistic development represented by three of those works. Hollenbeck says the bass line in “Long Swing Dream,” along with some of the horn parts, came to him in a dream—once he realized what the first letters of the title stood for, he added texts by Cary Grant (spoken by Bleckmann) discussing his experiences with the drug.

Some of the strongest material wasn’t written by Hollenbeck, but his arranging is so richly transformative that he really deserves to share compositional credit. A lush, relatively conventional adaptation of Kenny Wheeler‘s “Heyoke” (an older small-group piece, for which Hollenbeck had written big-band orchestrations in 2011) omits the ballad section in memory of the trumpeter, who died in 2014—that was the one part Wheeler had arranged for big band himself. And the Large Ensemble’s mosaic-like version of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” is a marvel of contrapuntal melodic detail, with all sorts of pointillistic movement in myriad directions.

“Elf,” which you can hear below, is Hollenbeck’s radical arrangement of the classic Billy Strayhorn ballad “Isfahan,” famously included on Duke Ellington’s 1967 masterpiece The Far East Suite. The core theme is buried in this adaptation, emerging in full only about four minutes into the six-minute piece. “Elf” was commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2015 for a program celebrating Strayhorn, and at the fest, local saxophonist John Wojciechowski played its tricky opening statement, which is written in a dizzyingly high register; Tony Malaby gamely tackles the part here. The ensemble is definitely the star on All Can Work, but it includes a slew of great improvisers, including Malaby and fellow reedists Jeremy Viner, Dan Willis, and Anna Webber, trombonist Jacob Garchik, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Chris Tordini, and trumpeters Dave Ballou and Matt Holman.

Today’s playlist:

Beat Furrer, Nuun/Presto con Fuoco/Still/Poemas (Kairos)
Philipp Gropper’s Philm, Sun Ship (WhyPlayJazz)
Klaus Filip & Dafne-Vicente Sandoval, Remoto (Potlatch)
Eskelin/Weber/Griener, Sensations of Tone (Intakt)
Various artists, Antologia de Música Atípica Portuguesa: Vol. 1: O Trabalho (Discrepant)