Drummer, composer, and bandleader John Hollenbeck reveals the wide and deep range of his talents on the first album by his Large Ensemble, an 18-piece aggregation of some of the most skilled musicians on the New York City creative music scene, including Hollenbeck's frequent partner in musical exploration, vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and two members of the Claudia Quintet. Hollenbeck succeeds brilliantly in keeping the listener off balance, revealing new facets of his artistic vision and the capabilities of his players as the album progresses, yet never losing sight of A Blessing's overarching conceptual form. The CD begins with a blessing and ends with a prayer, deeply humanistic and touchingly hopeful messages bracketing the far-reaching journey at the album's heart. That trip starts at the title track, as the moody, subtle atmospherics of piano, bowed vibes, and bass beneath Bleckmann's vocal build through an expressive soprano saxophone interlude into thoroughly scored full-ensemble territory that fully reflects Hollenbeck's compositional acumen. Front-line instruments including woodwinds, mallets, and voice unwind chant-like melodic lines over a harmonic backdrop that shifts as the rhythm tightens and the melodies knot up in counterpoint, finally ascending to a plateau of shimmering, Steve Reich-ian minimalism beneath Bleckmann's final heartfelt wish -- a traditional Irish blessing that everyone has heard but has never been offered more poignantly -- that life offer up its best for its travelers.
Later, a jazz sensibility takes over in "RAM," with its brassy punctuations and swing, while masses of caterwauling horns let loose over a mechanistically pounding, skewed rhythm in "Weiji" and the thus-far definitive version of Hollenbeck's opus "a-b-s-t-i-n-e-n-c-e" builds to climax suggesting quite the opposite of the title itself. The catharsis is invigorating and fully realized as the album winds its way through myriad episodes of contrasting moods, even as solo instrumental spotlights for trombone, piano, and saxophone battle with complex underlying arrangements for the listeners' attention. There's so much to hear that multiple spins are absolutely mandatory. In the liners, Hollenbeck is quoted describing Bleckmann as the band's "secret weapon," and that pretty much nails it. Bleckmann is a beautifully evocative singer in a "conventional" song, but his wordless voice is also a stunning instrument, somehow both warm and otherworldly. He's in the mix here and there throughout, taking on the role that, for example, a theremin, shakuhachi, or didgeridoo might fulfill in your not-so-typical big-band arrangement. Ultimately, A Blessing is like any of John Hollenbeck's other, smaller-group releases to date -- stylistically unclassifiable while fully engaged in expanding the diverse genres and styles it draws upon. To use a term that has probably gone out of fashion during times of fragmentation and discord, Hollenbeck's music is "holistic," and summed up best in "The Music of Life"'s selfless prayer for healing at this album's conclusion. The world and all its inhabitants could benefit greatly by taking this type of blessing to heart.