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JBBG - Jazz Big-Band Graz
'Joys & Desires'
If even Frank Zappa gossiped about jazz because of its funny smells three decades ago, this sharp prejudice is particularly suitable for big bands today. Unfortunately, the majority of big bands does not do anything to get rid of this resentment, but vacillates between administrating and raping jazz. Only very few large jazz ensembles are exploring new directions or are resuming the traditions which once turned the big band into one of the most important jazz orchestra. Howev
If even Frank Zappa gossiped about jazz because of its funny smells three decades ago, this sharp prejudice is particularly suitable for big bands today. Unfortunately, the majority of big bands does not do anything to get rid of this resentment, but vacillates between administrating and raping jazz. Only very few large jazz ensembles are exploring new directions or are resuming the traditions which once turned the big band into one of the most important jazz orchestra. However, the Jazz Big Band Graz (JBBG), founded five years ago, combines both virtues, with the brilliant drummer John Hollenbeck as the master supplying the band with suitable tunes.
The New York drummer and composer John Hollenbeck is one of the most versatile contemporary jazz musicians. Side by side with philosophers of melodic jazz such as Fred Hersch, Bob Brookmeyer or Kenny Wheeler he has developed a smooth, fluent way of playing, characterized by flexible dynamics and a constant combination of unobtrusive, flexible rhythms and sensitive harmony. He has strengthened the Klezmer avant-garde together with David Krakauer and Frank London and cultivated the Tango Nuevo with Pablo Ziegler. He has resumed the achievements of the innovative New York downtown scene with his Claudia Quintet and crossed the border between jazz and New Music. As a member of the Intuition family, he has effectively and efficiently encouraged Florian Ross and Henning Sieverts. All these achievements are now combined in his compositions on 'Joys & Desires', put into practice with JBBG under Heinrich von Kalnein and Horst Michael Schaffer. Hollenbeck is enthusiastic about the big band from Graz. 'The Graz band is first and foremost a normal big band with a wind and rhythm section, but the musicians of this band are so open to every kind of music that they aren't just a normal big band any more. You can explore a lot of different new territories with them. Over the years, they have developed a unique sound and are well on the way to becoming an institution in Europe similar to the Vienna Art Orchestra. '
Hollenbeck's pieces can be approached from different angles; you can bathe in sounds and relax, but you can also grip them with your ears, cling to them and feast on their daring architecture. Hollenbeck's approach to his own music is as relaxed as the music itself. 'Most people expect a kind of intellectual music from big bands. It is either associated with swing or with total freedom. There is not much leeway in between. Of course, my music, too, is full of intellectual details, formulated with great effort, but they don't have priority. I want to make laid-back music which people can also listen to without any preparation. '
'Joys & Desires' has little in common with ordinary big band jazz. Instead of offering dense and swaggering brass sounds Hollenbeck sensitively plays with voices and moods, spheres and atmospheres. His pieces do not sound like wind music laid on thick, but like a carefully spotted sound painting. Hollenbeck's main goal, however, is not individual self-realization of the musicians involved, but the greatest possible magic in a piece of music, which he puts into practice without compromise. Especially when listening to the heavier passages, the listeners are likely to entirely forget that this is a big band and not, say, a distorted guitar or an electronic sound. The music has to speak for itself, only then will the performers emerge from behind it. 'There is a lot of improvisation in my music, but I don't want to create any space for solos, ' says Hollenbeck. 'Of course a solo might just come up if it doesn't go against the logical flow of the music. But basically, the music isn't structured like that. I've tried to work with only a few voices. I usually write for smaller ensembles. That is why I wanted the big band to sound like a smaller group. I've put a maximum of three voices on top of each other, so the voices can be distinguished clearly. Textures are more important to me than improvisations. '
Nevertheless, Hollenbeck does not see himself as being inconsistent with the principle of freedom in jazz. He, too, represents the utmost freedom of interpretation, which, however, does not start at the moment of performance, but earlier. He frees himself from categorical instructions and strives for a meta-music in the style of Gil Evans. Together with his close friend, the singer and electronics specialist Theo Bleckman, he emphasizes shapes instead of traditions or methods. 'My music is basically free of style or genre. It is music which speaks for itself and gives listeners the freedom to make their own discoveries. Anyhow, I have to assume that there are no two ears listening to music in the same way. For the most part, I compose the pieces, but I create spaces where the musicians can do what they want. I don't have to tell them. I often work in contexts where I tell musicians to interpret their parts as they like, but even then they follow my instructions. The JBBG musicians don't need any instructions. They find these free spaces on their own accord and interpret them with a high degree of freedom. '
'Joys & Desires' builds yet another bridge: Hollenbeck has been active on both sides of the Atlantic for a long time. He has carried the spirit of New York to Europe and the new European formal awareness back to the USA. With JBBG, he has found the best possible intersection of European and American jazz. Hardly any other contemporary musician blurs the lines of demarcation between the mother country of jazz and the home of most jazz instrument as convincingly and permanently as Hollenbeck. However, with his aesthetic sense he only pays tribute to his personal experience. 'There used to be large differences between European and American musicians. But today almost all European musicians have studied either in America or with Americans, and most American musicians either live in Europe or are constantly on tour in Europe. That is why the differences are hardly audible. Surely I find that an American big band can play a composition at sight a lot more quickly than a European ensemble. But the playing levels are absolutely identical. '
John Hollenbeck and JBBG easily send big band aficionados into ecstasies. However, their true achievement is that they easily get even those on their side, and what's more, infect them with their magical sound, who have long since lost their faith in the power and beauty of the big band.