Published: April 26, 2011
John Hollenbeck composes so much music for his own bands — Refuge Trio, the Claudia Quintet and his Large Ensemble, each unmistakable in its identity — that you could go a long time before wondering about the transferable aspects of his style.
What does his writing sound like beyond the circumference of his peer group? When he’s not shaping the pulse from the drums? When the power of interpretation has been entrusted to another group, with another point of view?
We might not feel the need to pose these questions if Mr. Hollenbeck weren’t known primarily as a jazz musician. Composers dwell in ideas; the execution may or may not involve them. And Mr. Hollenbeck has grown increasingly accomplished as a composer, ever more assured in the distinctive clarity of his voice. That point was brought home, powerfully, at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village on Monday night.
Presented by Undead Jazz, it was a double bill featuring the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and, from France, the 10-piece Orchestre National de Jazz. Both bands played Mr. Hollenbeck’s music: the Orchestre, an initiative of the French Ministry of Culture, now in its 25th year, tackled a body of work called “Shut Up and Dance,” recently released as a double album on the Bee Jazz label.
The artistic director of the Orchestre, for a three-year term, is Daniel Yvinec, a polymath who studied bass in a jazz context in New York. Under his guidance, the institution has taken on a daring character, with a lineup youthful enough to make it look like a student ensemble. Each piece in “Shut Up and Dance” is a mini-concerto for a specific member of the Orchestre.
The overarching theme has to do with music and human movement: a genuine preoccupation for Mr. Hollenbeck, who has long collaborated with the body-focused performance artist Meredith Monk. (She sat at a center table through both sets.) Rhythm, more than texture, was the currency of this performance. Several pieces derived their force from superimposed meters, like the five-against-four animating “Flying Dream,” a prog-fusion excursion intended to showcase Pierre Perchaud on guitar.
“Racing Heart, Heart Racing,” featuring the tenor saxophonist Rémi Dumoulin, employed a chunky, polyrhythmic pointillism; “Tongs of Joy,” featuring Vincent Lafont on Fender Rhodes piano and electronics, rode a derivation of samba rhythm.
Still, the distinctive palette of the group — rhythm-section heavy, with multiple woodwinds but just one trumpet, and no trombones — registered clearly in the compositions. Often there were chords that coalesced, in airy dissonance, as the reeds sidled into formation.
The band managed this slippery music commendably, even when the soloists came up short: Antonin-Tri Hoang’s alto saxophone and bass clarinet work on “Melissa Dance” felt awkward and pinched, but the piece itself was fantastically immersive, opening with a somber chordal chime and closing — after a long, slow swell, and a stark sci-fi coda — with a butterfly flutter of timbres, evoking the intoxicating side of classical minimalism.
The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble utilized the same effects in its set, but with a bit more of everything: polyphony, cacophony, panache. For this appearance the band was joined by a guest pianist, Uri Caine, and two vocalists, Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry. The repertory revolved around what Mr. Hollenbeck called “my idea of pop music,” songs by Imogen Heap and Kraftwerk and Jimmy Webb. (“I forgot to listen to pop music as a kid,” Mr. Hollenbeck helpfully explained.)
The ensemble, conducted by J C Sanford, played with imposing dynamism, often building elaborate structures over a drone. “Constant Conversation,” based on a text by Rumi, was driven by a plunging downbeat, after the example of Sufi devotional music; the Ornette Coleman ballad “All My Life” had Ms. McGarry singing openheartedly against a bleating accretion of horns.
And “A Man of Constant Sorrow” began with a lumbering phrase for all the bass-clef instruments in the band, then swung into gear as a Celtic-Appalachian testimonial, tangled with cross-talk. It ended, after an exhilarating full-band freakout, with the tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby wheezing a single split tone, suggestively forlorn.