The Do Over #02: Anger

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional, financial and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of musings trying parse the difference between now and then.

I was quick tempered as a child.  It’s not that I didn’t lead a rather comfortable life, but anger seemed empowering.  The Black Panthers were angry, and it seemed like they had LOTS of power, so any impetus to boil my blood was welcomed.

As I got older, I saw anger differently but no less welcoming.  It was a power motivational tool.  For instance, my high school guidance counselor rejected my request to take dance as an elective and directed me to a pre calculus class as “that’s where your real talents lie.”  I wanted to be physically active and this is before the era that all kids were slotted into some activity or five.  You had to be a skilled player to be on the court and I wasn’t.  I thought that if I was taking a class for credit, I would have an opportunity for my body to figure it out.   Ah well, my body figured it out in my early adult years at gyms and fitness studios across NYC, and I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity.  It felt like my body was no longer imprisoned by the notion that I was “brainy” or “smart.”  It seemed like many of my fellow gym rats were escapees from similar penitentiaries.

A key professional motivating anger came during a job interview a few months after I got out of college.  I interviewed for a copy runner gig at the NY Times.  It was 1982 or 1983; the Reagan recession was still in full force, and I was really interviewing to get on the short list of people to be called when the economy began to look up.  I thought the interview had gone well.  My credentials were solid; ivy League grad and award winning feature writer in high school.  Yet at the end of the interview the HR rep told me very plainly that she didn’t think I was cut out for journalism.

“Why?”  I asked trying to hide my dismay; journalism had been my only career ambition from the time I was 12. “It’s a difficult job,” she said.  “I just don’t think you’re cut out for it.”  Needless to say, those words echoed in my head and fueled me then like cold brewed iced coffee does today.   In 1991, when I got my first piece in the NY Times, I thought about sending it to her, but I realized I’d gotten over the anger.

Anger today is trickier.  There are slights that continue to provide motivation, but it’s different now. I have to be careful.  In the last fifteen years or so, anger has had a way of turning inward and inhibiting my life rather than motivating it.  The inward anger isn’t rational, but it’s not entirely irrational either.  The thumbnail history of my career is that I simultaneously developed careers in journalism via freelancing to leading newspapers, magazines and websites and in specialty cheese via jobs in many gourmet emporia and boutiques in New York City.   This did not conform to the standard go to work/get a paycheck/enjoy evenings and weekends routine, but it was a remarkably elegant and versatile financial ecosystem that mostly kept me afloat for several decades.  Usually when journalism was hard to come by, I could dial up the cheese work.  When journalism rebounded, I could dial down the cheese.


No special reason for Eno other than it TTM was the soundtrack while writing this dispatch

Yet there were vagaries to this routine as well.  For one, I always just barely kept my head above water and sometimes not even.  At 30, I was told I was too old for a staff job and similar situations at newspapers (i.e. the position has been budgeted at a pay scale lower than your command).  Yet, I always felt I was one steady freelance gig away from that evenings and weekends comfortable existence and when dotcoms came into the picture, 1996-2001, I did enjoy that lifestyle.  But then it ended abruptly.  I scrambled, expanding my music journalism career to include sports and recently expanding my cheesemonger career to include craft beer specialties.  Both were savvy moves, but it’s been back to the future as I often just barely keep my head above water again, if that.

Many of my journalist peers chide me for hanging on in the profession (ironically, some of them also chided me for not being a real journalist in the ‘80s and ‘90s since I had a part time food gig).  “Why don’t you just go full time in cheese,” said one food journalist, evidently unaware that she was advocating abandoning a career that routinely generated 50K for a job that only rarely paid better than $14/hour.  When I sought to use my dismay as motivating anger, however, it often turned inward.  I was furious with myself for not pursuing new career options during the millennial era halcyon days.  Now, it’s hard to pivot toward other opportunities since I feel like I’m in the middle of the sea with only fleeting glimpses of land.  Most of my energy is involved in staying afloat.

Also during the new millennium, I let my body go.  Twice during first dates in recent years, women said to me “do you even know the gyms are?”  Yep, I’m overweight but I’d like to think that my shoulders and pecs speak to a non-sedentary history.  Also, my thighs still exhibit hundreds of hours in spinning and step classes and thousands of miles on a bicycle.  In other words, it’s the midsection that needs work.  Yet rather than turn those words into a current day guidance counselor, I’m often prone to despair about how my panic over declining career fortunes led me to ignore my health and worse, ignore that physical achievements usually spurred me toward professional ones.

Instead of keeping the slights in view, I’ve had to dismiss them in favor of just keeping focused on what a better future might look like.  Perhaps it will involve publishing a book or two, or perhaps a real job at a college (adjunct? been there/done that).  Maybe it will involve my own beer and cheese place.  The game is to get all of that on the table while I work toward reducing the middle and invigorating the rest of the body.

Some of my 26 year old peers don’t grasp what I mean when I tell them I don’t have time to fool around in my career quests.  But when it comes to naysayers I have found that I have to adopt the “haters gonna hate” attitude. I ain’t got time for that.  I have places to go and people to see and I need every ounce of present energy to get there.  Anger no longer seems empowering; instead it seems irrelevant.



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One of my All Time Favorite Articles

This is the sixth anniversary of one of my all time favorite feature stories.

A Ballad of New York, Lived and Played for All

By Martin Johnson
Updated Aug. 18, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET

Stephanie Stone is probably the only up-and-coming 89-year-old pianist on the New York jazz scene. Ms. Stone, who performed in the 1940s and ’50s, when clubs were ubiquitous in the city, has appeared regularly in the past few years with some of today’s leading jazz musicians.

In between, for more than four decades, she and her husband, the jazz scene regular Irving Stone, were among the most ardent lovers of experimental jazz. Their presence in the audience of a gig, whether at a top concert hall or an out-of-the-way dive, was a near guarantee of a quality show. Irving passed away seven years ago, and since then Ms. Stone has been performing more often—and making an impression. She’s had offers to record with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, two of the leading rhythm players in jazz.
Ms. Stone, shown in an undated photo, has been performing since the 1940s. ENLARGE
Ms. Stone, shown in an undated photo, has been performing since the 1940s. Radhika Chalasani for the Wall Street Journal

On Wednesday night, Ms. Stone will appear on a program called “Three New York Women” at the Stone in the East Village. She will perform solo and in accompaniment of the poets Yuko Otomo and Eve Packer. Note the name of the venue: John Zorn, its founder and a highly respected saxophonist and composer, named the space for Irving, but he and his wife were an inseparable presence at numerous performances.

“They were the Godparents of the scene,” said Bruce Gallanter, founder and co-owner of Downtown Music Gallery, a record store in Chinatown that specializes in progressive rock, avant-garde jazz, and modern classical music. Mr. Gallanter fondly recalled meeting the Stones in the mid ’70s at a seedy West Village venue called Studio Henry. “They had demanding tastes,” Mr. Gallanter said by phone last week. “They had heard all the greats from the bebop era; they knew if you could play or were just fooling around.”

Ms. Stone hadn’t just heard them; she shared bills with these greats. Born in 1921 to parents who sang mostly as a hobby, Ms. Stone grew up on what is now the outskirts of Brooklyn’s Borough Park. She is mostly self-taught on the piano, but was rigorous in her approach. “I collected song sheets,” she said one recent afternoon in her Midwood apartment. “I taught myself 100 songs or more that way.”

Ms. Stone moved to Manhattan in the ’40s and quickly found work in nightclubs both in Midtown and in Greenwich Village.

“Back then there were nightclubs everywhere—two or three on every block,” she recalled. Initially her jobs were offstage; one was as the “camera girl,” offering to photograph patrons and having the shots developed for sale by the time the show was over. One night, while taking pictures for Kelly’s Stables (which was located on 52nd St., a famed strip of nightclubs), Ms. Stone was asked by the owner to fill in for an ailing singer in one of the acts that preceded legendary tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. It was her big break. Before long she was singing and playing piano in clubs all over New York City.
Pianist and vocalist Stephanie Stone outside the downtown club the Stone, which was named for her late husband and where she will perform Wednesday.

Pianist and vocalist Stephanie Stone outside the downtown club the Stone, which was named for her late husband and where she will perform Wednesday. Radhika Chalasani for the Wall Street Journal

This led to several years of engagements both in the city and out. She played gigs in New Jersey and as far away as Birmingham, Ala. “Back then there were so many nightclubs that if you were a musician, you couldn’t not work,” she said.

She met her husband through mutual friends, and their passion for jazz was an immediate bond. For their first date they attended a 1957 performance by the legendary Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard. The couple continued to follow the music as the cutting edge moved from the posh venues to dives. Mr. Gallanter fondly recalled gigs where he and the Stones were in audiences so small they didn’t break single digits.

Ms. Stone now plays at many of the venues where she hears her favorite musicians—Cornelia St. Café, Local 269 and her namesake venue. During a June 30th performance at the Stone, she led a trio and sang a program of standards. Her piano style was particularly compelling. She performed several warhorses like “Body and Soul” and “All

The Things You Are.” Rather than use the familiar tunes as a showcase for dazzling virtuosity, Ms. Stone guided the listeners into the nuances of the songs, using her solos to reveal the standard’s pensive sides. But every piece started with a few self-effacing words.

“She acts like she’s not very good,” said Mr. Gallanter, “but she can really play.”

Ms. Stone dismisses the notion that jazz’s peak phase is over. “Oh, there are so many,” she said, slapping her forehead in exasperation when asked to name some of today’s musicians who can stand among the greats. She rattled off Mr. Zorn, saxophonist Tim Berne, violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier before begging off the task for fear of forgetting too many favorites.

Her biggest regret is not being able to get to as many shows as she used to. “You have to keep your ears open,” she said of her quest to hear new innovative sounds. “That’s how you keep your mind open.”











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The Do Over Chronicles #01

So who knew?  56 really is the new 26.

This revelation occurred to me a few weeks ago when I noticed my confidence suddenly increasing.  I couldn’t fathom the reasons for my brighter outlook.  The rather urgent financial, professional and existential pressures in my life were largely the same.  Yet, my conundrum felt oddly familiar.

That’s when I took a good look at my life.  I work two jobs, one in the food business and one as a freelance journalist.  I live in a great New York City neighborhood that is a little over my head financially but I lack the resources to move to a cheaper one.  The best short term outlook is to increase my journalism revenue.

That’s when it hit me.  This is the exact same scenario I faced 30 years ago.  At that time, I worked in the specialty cheese area first of Bloomingdales then at a fine, long lost store called Petak’s.  I was writing for an African American news and cultural affairs paper called The City Sun and a daily newspaper, Newsday.  Motivated in part by a rent increase that put “leaving New York” on the agenda of possible outcomes, I began shopping clips to bigger outlets and in the next few years my byline began showing up in Rolling Stone and Vogue among other publications.

Today, I work in the specialty craft beer area of a fancy grocery store near me called Westside Market, and I write for the Wall St. Journal and an African American news and cultural affairs website called The Root.  The best way forward is to advance the journalism career.

Small wonder I felt my confidence start to brim.  In a lot of ways it’s déjà vu all over again.


Why Wilco? I dunno, it’s what I was listening to as I wrote.


In a lot of ways it isn’t.  But it seemed like the basis for a series of posts that parse the vagaries of the new middle age.  I don’t know that I ever had a solid vision for what I wanted my late 50s to look like, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t it.   I do love what I do for work, but I absolutely hate the quantities that I do it.  When I was 26, I could pretty easily work 60-70 hours a week and work out regularly, bike a lot and have time and more importantly enthusiasm for an active leisure life.  At 56, I finish work and run home to listen to music or watch sports or other sedentary activities, deadly fearful that my sands of energy are about to trickle out of the top half of the hourglass.

But if I’m going to enjoy the same success I did in my late 20s and early 30s then I’m going to need to summon the energy of that 26 year old self, even if it’s in the middle aged iteration.  That’s the key.  I know a lot more than I did 30 years ago, but I’m physically capable of a lot less.  In my mind’s eye, I still am a bit of a fitness fanatic, well into my 30s, it was commonplace for me to do a rigorous yoga class and bike 10 miles a day.  Even five years ago, I routinely took two spinning classes and two yoga classes each week. Then I spent much of the years from 52-55 on a cane, suffering from a variety of chronic lower body issues related to going back to full time retail after the journalism career crashed in 2011.  As my physical issues mounted (there were some days that simply going down the steps of my building wasn’t possible) my self-esteem went into freefall.  At 51, a physical challenge meant lifting into forearm stand slowly, then lowering into scorpion with equally deliberate pace and holding it for a couple of minutes while the instructor highlighted my abilities and the form that enabled me to do it.  At 53, a challenge was getting out of a chair and hobbling across my shoebox sized Manhattan apartment to go to the bathroom.  Except for a couple of days this summer, after bruising my knee in a nasty spill, the cane has stayed in the closet, and bit by bit, the fitness regimen is returning.  I know I need the sense of ambition in my body to energize my mind to tackle the challenges ahead.

These days yoga doesn’t mean inversions—it doesn’t yet mean inversions—but rather a series of seated poses to limber the torso and a series of  standing forward bends, twists, and standing balances.   On particularly good days, it also includes sun salutations and some core work, but lately a wrist issue acting up is keeping downward facing dog, plank and side incline plane off of the agenda for now (age is such a charming phenomenon in that regard, I roll out of bed every morning and take stock to make sure that all my joints and muscles work the way I’d like them to; I took such matters for granted 30 years ago). I do bike a lot again and hopefully spinning classes aren’t too far down that road to being back in my schedule.

Last Sunday, I got the best indicator of why I’m confident.  That Saturday I’d biked close to five miles in the name of running errands around lower Manhattan.  Sunday, I worked in retail running around for seven hours.  Then I biked another coupla miles.  I got home and realized I was out of milk, which I need for coffee in the morning.  I shrugged at headed out, taking some trash with me.  As I emerged from the trash porch, Frank a musician burst through the front door of my building and all but assumed I’d help him carry his huge upright bass up to his apartment on the sixth floor.

Oh, I’d suddenly found my forearm stand level challenge, and I was exhausted.  Frank explained that his girlfriend usually helps him but she has a new phone and wasn’t answering it.  I shrugged.  All he really wanted was me to carry his luggage rack up to my floor, three, and he’d take it from there.  I put it in my mind that I was going to help him to the sixth floor, and up we went.  He impressively talked while he carried his instrument up the stairs telling me that he’d done a brunch gig in Pennsylvania before doing another gig in the neighborhood in the evening.  I got to the fifth floor and needed to catch my breath for a second.  Frank realized it was well past my floor and in a flash, he thanked me and grabbed the luggage cart and headed up the final set of steps alone.  Through my huffs and puffs, I was saying “but…but…” I wanted to finish the job.  I could finish the job.  I knew I could.  I didn’t know that when I emerged from the trash porch.

During my hobbled era, my constant fear was that my energy would run out and not immediately refresh. Back then, it didn’t routinely refresh without running out.  I had persistent nightmares that I would crumple in the middle of the street and cars and buses would whiz by me while people around me would wonder aloud “doesn’t he still go to yoga.”  In that moment on the fifth floor landing, I had exhausted my supply of energy and yet it refreshed in a matter of seconds.

I bounded down the steps and out to get milk.  I was so energized that though exhausted I had to work at it to fall asleep.  I awoke Monday morning even more energized.  Sure, I face daunting challenges but yeah, it really is déjà vu all over again.

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At WSJ on the new Nels Cline




This was one of those reviews that makes me realize how much I love writing.  On Friday, I was all ready to write a fairly superficial review of the recording judging it on how well it tackles Cline’s stated objectives about putting a personal spin on mood music and romance.  But one of my favorite editors, Hugo Lindgren, would always encourage me to think harder about my subject matter, so as I walked to my retail sidelight job that day, leaving a half finished review on my hard drive, I began thinking about how the repertoire, a mix of classics and darker less well known pieces, relate.  Suddenly I was careening down a snow covered thought mountain on skis with the facility of Lindsay Vonn.  Cline’s recording is a commitment, two discs, but if you like music, you’ll hear things differently after spending some time with it.

‘Lovers’ by Nels Cline Review: Refreshing the American Songbook

23-piece band helps to give the past a postmillennial sound.

Guitarist Nels Cline, who is 60, has established a formidable reputation in three styles of music. He is a prominent figure in jazz, both through his tributes to greats like Andrew Hill and his work as a sideman with Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem. He has collaborated with indie rockers Mike Watt and Thurston Moore, and since 2004 he has been a member of the hard-to-classify band Wilco. On his new recording, “Lovers” (Blue Note), he introduces an unforeseen new style—romanticism. The two-disc album features Mr. Cline and a large jazz ensemble deftly working their way through American Songbook classics, but it isn’t a repudiation of his other interests. The band also navigates its way through some thorny Cline originals and a tune each by the members of Sonic Youth, Annette Peacock, and the duo of Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer. What results is a fascinating re-evaluation of the classic tunes, an extension of Mr. Cline’s virtuosity, and a sense that the dots in Mr. Cline’s diverse career connect in previously unseen ways.

Nels Cline’s new recording is ‘Lovers.’ ENLARGE
Nels Cline’s new recording is ‘Lovers.’ Photo: Nathan West

The music on “Lovers” is performed by a 23-piece band that includes ace musicians like trumpeter Steven Bernstein, guitarist Julian Lage and clarinetist Ben Goldberg; the band also features six stringed instruments and a harp. Rather than immediately overwhelm you, the lush sound from Mr. Cline’s large ensemble eases in on the first track as horn and string unisons build a gentle call and response on the leader’s aptly named “Introduction/Diaphanous.” This gives way to relaxed, reserved playing highlighted by Mr. Cline’s crisp solo. The guitarist’s approach continues through the Rodgers and Hart standard “Glad to Be Unhappy,” Mr. Cline’s own “Hairpin & Hatbox,” and the Wayne King/Victor Young/Egbert Van Alstyne/Haven Gillespie waltz “Beautiful Love.” The mood darkens sharply for the Jimmy Giuffre tune “Cry, Want” and Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor.” It’s as if the sunny tour of Hollywood stopped and nightfall came amid the dark alleys of Los Angeles’s seedier areas, or a classic romance suddenly turned into a film noir. The sweetness of the earlier tracks becomes spare, precisely arranged counterpoint to Mr. Cline’s assertive playing. The recording continues in that vein, with blocs of standards offset by Mr. Cline’s originals and somewhat darker works by others.

As a result, the standards feel more contemporary—part of a postmillennial musical landscape rather than a soundtrack to a glorious but lost past. Mr. Cline has stripped them of nostalgia but kept the musical core and built upon it. This is apparent when the recording’s 18 tracks are listened to in their intended order, but the concept glows in high relief when excerpts are isolated and listened to out of order. For listeners willing to jump around the recording, the rustic wit of the Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern nugget “Why Was I Born?” leads well into the archly melodic “Snare, Girl” by the members of Sonic Youth. Similarly the jittery rhythms of the Lindsay/Scherer “It Only Has to Happen Once” are a good lead in for the busy intro and antsy rendition of the Sammy Fain/Paul Francis Webster evergreen “Secret Love.”

Mr. Cline was born in Los Angeles and has recorded frequently with two trios, most notably the Nels Cline Singers, a group that does not include vocals. He has appeared on more than 200 recordings as a sideman, and Rolling Stone named him one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. According to his website, he began conceiving “Lovers” during the ’80s, while traveling. He wanted to address romance and mood music, the underside of love as well as the happily-ever-after part. With his diverse repertoire, expert arrangements and his band’s dynamic playing, he has accomplished this and illustrated that emotional depth matters more in music today than genre category.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on Maya Beiser’s TranceClassical


I have a diverse range of skills as a journalist, but one thing that I am not is a classical music critic.  I think that helps me approach and evaluate the music of Maya Beiser.  I just hear it as mostly interesting and engrossing sounds without regard as to where it leaves the genre.  I suspect that there are jazz artists like Esperanza Spalding and Robet Glasper that are better analyzed by people who are not jazz critics.  Anyway, here’s me on Beiser’s most recent recording.

‘TranceClassical’ by Maya Beiser Review: A Cello Bows to All Genres

Synthesizing diverse influences ranging from Bach to the Velvet Underground.

Maya Beiser’s new album is ‘TranceClassical.’

Maya Beiser’s new album is ‘TranceClassical.’ ENLARGE
Maya Beiser’s new album is ‘TranceClassical.’ Photo: Ioulex
By Martin Johnson
Aug. 1, 2016 5:02 p.m. ET

During her lengthy career, cellist and composer Maya Beiser has explored sacred songs, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Woodstock-era rock, and numerous pieces by contemporary classical composers ranging from Philip Glass to Michael Gordon. On her new recording, “TranceClassical” (Innova), she brings these disparate interests together in what amounts to a philosophical retrospective and a career-spanning playlist. Rather than deliver a pastiche, she unites her interests with characteristic flair.

The recording begins with a plaintive rendition of Bach’s “Air” (from Orchestral Suite No. 3). In the liner notes to the recording, Ms. Beiser cites the music of Bach as the inspiration for her eclectic pursuits. She aims to present the piece as she first heard it, from a worn record on her parents’ stereo when she was young, and the track begins with the sound of a needle landing in the scratchy grooves of an LP. Many hip-hop and dance recordings employ sonic elements from the vinyl era to underpin their authenticity, and Ms. Beiser’s use of the same techniques serves to make the 18th-century composition seem very of the moment.

Her cover of Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” one of the signature tunes of the Velvet Underground, is similarly fascinating. David Lang’s arrangement for cello and voice deftly remakes the tune. In the original version, Reed is alternately defiant and submissive about his relationship to the drug; John Cale’s viola trails Reed’s vocals with a menacing sound. Ms. Beiser dials down the defiance and menace without losing the ambivalence in the lyrics or the attraction of the story. It’s an ambitious gambit; most of the Velvets’ catalog is rarely covered, but Ms. Beiser makes the piece her own, escaping its long shadow.

Other highlights include Glenn Kotche’s “Three Parts Wisdom,” a densely layered showcase for Ms. Beiser’s virtuosity. The cellist’s arrangement of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” features triple-tracked vocals that are at times reminiscent of Laurie Anderson. Mr. Gordon’s 2006 work “All Vows,” a solo cello piece, was recorded in a church with multiple microphones enhancing the reverberant environment. In 2014, Ms. Beiser released “Uncovered,” a recording of canonical rock and blues songs. David Little’s “Hellhound,” which was inspired by Robert Johnson’s cornerstone blues song “Hellhound on My Trail,” is reminiscent of that recording, with pounding drums and snarling guitars augmenting Ms. Beiser’s cello.

Ms. Beiser, who prefers not to disclose her age, was born in Israel and raised on a kibbutz near Galilee. While growing up, she was enraptured by classical music, rock, and religious music both from Israel and the surrounding Arab countries. After graduating from the Yale University School of Music, she became a founding member of the adventurous new-music collective Bang on a Can. She has become known not only for her wide-ranging repertoire but for her stellar use of multitracked performances and multidisciplinary presentations. “TranceClassical” is a look back at various chapters in Ms. Beiser’s career, and it suggests that each phase is still evolving.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on John Hollenbeck Claudia Quintet

Arts Arts in Review Music Review

‘Super Petite’ by Claudia Quintet Review: An Unusual Combo’s Varied Terrain
Claudia Quintet alludes to everything from Argentine tango to Pakistani qawwali music.

Drummer John Hollenbeck leads the group with subdued flair.

Drummer John Hollenbeck leads the group with subdued flair. ENLARGE
Drummer John Hollenbeck leads the group with subdued flair. Photo: David Kaufman
By Martin Johnson
June 27, 2016 5:48 p.m. ET

Drummer John Hollenbeck is one of the best and least-heralded composers in jazz, and his experience ranks among the most diverse even in an eclectic age.

In the late ’90s, Mr. Hollenbeck, who is 48 years old, apprenticed with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, playing forward-looking traditional big-band music and in the discreet and intensely lyrical ensembles led by contemporary-classical vocalist Meredith Monk; both influences still resonate in his work. His music thrives on unique harmonies, appealing melodies, and innovative blends of percussion. His primary small group, the Claudia Quintet, has been together for nearly 20 years, and their rapport shows on his new recording, “Super Petite” (Cuneiform).

“Super Petite,” the band’s eighth recording, is aptly named—each piece sounds like a miniature of a larger work, and the Claudia Quintet often sounds like a much larger band. It’s a characteristic derived from Mr. Hollenbeck’s precise compositions, which result in layers of sounds melding together in beautiful fashion, and from the unusual instrumentation of the band. He is joined by bassist Drew Gress, vibraphonist Matt Moran, saxophonist Chris Speed, and accordionist Red Wierenga. These musicians enable the band to explore a wide range of sonic allusions—such as, thanks to Mr. Wierenga in slower and midtempo pieces, the stately ease of Argentine tango and the solemn devotion of Pakistani qawwali music. Mr. Moran’s vibes work particularly well with the leader’s style. Mr. Hollenbeck is not a basher; instead he propels the music with subdued flair.

The recording begins with “Nightbreak,” Mr. Hollenbeck’s reworking of Charlie Parker’s famous alto saxophone solo from the classic “Night in Tunisia.” This version slows down the tempo to a nearly hypnotic pace and builds from a zigzagging contrast of sounds to deliver a compelling work. Two pieces dedicated to airport dogs, “JFK Beagle” and “Newark Beagle,” offer moody music with a noirish effect. In the JFK piece, the bass and accordion create catchy rhythms; the Newark tune showcases the drums and vibes. The band tackles a straight-ahead burner on “Philly,” a dedication to the great jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones, and it highlights virtuosic play from Messrs. Speed and Hollenbeck.

Mr. Hollenbeck, who was born in Binghamton, N.Y., attended the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City and participating in the vibrant lower Manhattan scene of the ’90s. He leads not only the Claudia Quintet—which takes its name from an acquaintance of the drummer from his early days in New York—but the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, a big band that has been twice nominated for Grammy Awards. The Claudia Quintet deftly covers a large amount of musical territory and—like the bands led by such drummers as Tyshawn Sorey, Allison Miller, Rudy Royston and Jeff Ballard—is helping to define jazz today.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal

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At WSJ on new music from Rhys Chatham and Jeff Parker

Arts Arts in Review Music Review

‘Pythagorean Dream’ by Rhys Chatham and ‘The New Breed’ by Jeff Parker Reviews
New albums from veteran guitarists offer hypnotic nuance or subdued funk.
Rhys Chatham ENLARGE
Rhys Chatham Photo: Roland Owsnitzki
By Martin Johnson
June 20, 2016 5:28 p.m. ET

On their new recordings, veteran guitarists Rhys Chatham and Jeff Parker are heading in opposite directions, but both make compelling music. Both men have a foot in important niches of rock. Mr. Chatham, who is 63 years old, created some of the dark, reverberant work that inspired some of the most important downtown New York rock bands of the ’80s, such as Sonic Youth and Swans. Since 1997, Mr. Parker, who is 49, has been a member of Tortoise, the influential, Chicago-based, mostly instrumental rock band, and he has been an integral member of that city’s current jazz and experimental music scene. On “Pythagorean Dream” (Foom), Mr. Chatham returns to his roots, employing the minimal style of composers Terry Riley and Tony Conrad to create a hypnotic work full of nuance. By contrast, Mr. Parker’s “The New Breed” (International Anthem) shows him working in a subdued but funky style.

Although Mr. Chatham also plays flute and trumpet, he has become nearly synonymous with the electric guitar. His composition “Guitar Trio,” which was released in 1977, featured three guitars, each with special tunings, along with electric bass and drums. After relocating to Paris in 1988, he began creating works with unique sonic heft. His 1989 piece “An Angel Moves Too Fast to See” featured 100 guitarists, and the French capital commissioned his 2005 work “A Crimson Grail,” which featured 400 guitars and was created to take advantage of the natural reverberations in the basilica at Sacré-Coeur.

By contrast, “Pythogorean Dream” is almost shocking in its subtlety. Mr. Chatham plays guitar, flute and trumpet on the album, which is divided into two sections, each about 19 minutes long. The first segment focuses on his guitar, the second on flute. The echoes, overtones and artful repetitions of his guitar are reminiscent of the work of early minimalist composers. Chatham’s flute provides a more tranquil sound. The music has a distinctly New York feel to it. The dark, guitar-based resonance from the first part feels like the alleyways of downtown in the more foreboding ’70s and ’80s, while the serene second part evokes images of the well-groomed riverfront areas of lower Manhattan today. In some ways, “Pythagorean Dream” shows how minimalism has developed since its early days, 50 years ago, when it was ascetic and almost deliberately cold; it sounded like nothing else on the scene. Mr. Chatham’s music, though rigorous, has warmth to it, and the connections to other music are easy to hear.
Jeff Parker ENLARGE
Jeff Parker Photo: Lee Anne Schmitt

Mr. Parker straddles the blurry boundaries between rock and jazz. Besides his work with Tortoise, he leads a trio of his own and has participated in Rob Mazurek’s Chicago Underground projects. Mr. Parker’s new recording showcases a different side of his work. On “The New Breed,” the guitarist, who recently relocated to Los Angeles from Chicago, explores the subdued funk and hip-hop that young West Coast bands like the Internet and many groups on the Los Angeles BrainFeeder roster are reviving.

Parker’s relocation sparked the project. During the move, he found some sampled beat experiments that he had done several years before. He revisited them and began to build a band to play alongside the samples. The group features bassist Paul Bryan, saxophonist Josh Johnson and drummer Jamire Williams. As is the case with Tortoise and his jazz groups, Mr. Parker’s guitar work is nuanced and complex, and the music spans an impressive amount of musical territory with deep and varied grooves.

Like the Robert Glasper Experiment, another group that adapts contemporary pop structures and techniques into their music, Mr. Parker’s band never lets the samples overtake the drive and energy of the ensemble. “Executive Life,” the first track, recalls the early jazz funk of the ’70s, and it is highlighted by short innovative solos. The ringing tones of Mr. Parker’s guitar lead two of the album’s most compelling pieces, “Here Comes Ezra” and “Jrifted,” and his solo at the start of the latter is the recording’s signature moment. The only misstep is the vocals—by his daughter, Ruby Parker—in the final track, “Cliché,” where the music falls dangerously close to its title.

Messrs. Parker and Chatham are both deep into their careers, but they have found interesting new ground in genres of instrumental music that deserve more attention.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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