Tuesday, January 03, 2006

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble - A Blessing (Omnitone, 2005)

John Hollenbeck is one busy musician. In addition to recording with the Claudia Quintet and the Jazz Big Band of Graz (Austria) he leads his own large orchestra. This album, which has been nominated for a Grammy Award, is not quite the usual riffing and solos type of big band project. Hollenbeck writes original and unusual compositions which make use of the large palette of instruments available to him.

The title song "A Blessing" opens the disc and has a soft and spare feel with Theo Blackman's high-pitched vocals which have a near operatic lilt and a gentle soft arrangement for the instruments. Saxophone solos weave in and around swirling swathes of reeds and trumpet. It's a lengthy performance, clocking in at almost 16 minutes. "Folkmoot" begins with a very grandiose theme of the horns and then breaks down into a duet between piano and saxophone. "RAM" has a meditative opening and then moves into a spritely section focusing on vibes and piano with the horns riffing in the backround. There's an odd babble of spoken word tacked on to the end of the track. "Weija" has a percussive, almost tribal feel with some majestic horn playing added to the scene.

Blackman's wordless vocals take center stage on "Abstinence" while grinding trombones and skittering percussion give the music a nervous feel. The composition takes on a suite like structure progressing through different movements in the course of eleven minutes, even kicking into a funky (!) section at around the nine minute mark. "April in Reggae" is a fun tune that lightens the mood a little bit, as it's a bit of a mashup between traditional reggae and the standard "April in Paris." Finally, "Music of Life" has a spoken incantation, much like the opening tune as the music comes full circle, ending the album on a haunted eerie note.

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