Handled with Care: Two High School All Stars Offer a “Counterpoint” to Ukraine - San Jose Jazz

Handled with Care: Two High School All Stars Offer a “Counterpoint” to Ukraine

by Brandon Roos


“So, do you know what we’re doing here?” John Hollenbeck asked with a laugh at the start of his Zoom call with Jeremy Darrow, pianist for San Jose Jazz’s High School All Stars (HSAS), in late December 2022. 

“Not quite,” responded Darrow, adding a brief chuckle of his own. In truth, they were in the midst of a fluid situation, but one in which San Jose Jazz’s education and performance initiatives were working in harmony.

Darrow and guitarist Ryota Sato, a fellow All Star, had each been chosen to arrange a Ukrainian folk song to be featured during their ensemble’s performance at San Jose Jazz Winter Fest 2023. With Hollenbeck—a celebrated composer, experienced educator, and Fest artist—on board to help guide the young composers, HSAS Director Oscar Pangilinan was excited about the project’s potential to shape the ensemble going forward.

“A key objective for me this year was to showcase our HSAS compositional talent and skills,” he shared via email. “Teaming up with Hollenbeck and exploring Ukrainian folk melodies presented a fantastic and unique opportunity to pursue this goal.” 

Winter Fest 2023’s theme, Counterpoint with Ukraine, was conceived to highlight Ukraine’s distinct cultural identity and the current efforts of Ukrainians to preserve it in the wake of a Russian invasion. Several Ukrainian musicians were featured at Winter Fest performances, and the composition project was a chance for one of San Jose Jazz’s leading education initiatives to thoughtfully integrate with and bolster the organization’s Winter Fest programming.

The All Stars were set to open for Hollenbeck and his new ensemble GEORGE, a group that formed during the height of the Pandemic. Noted as a drummer and percussionist with a playful versatility and a virtuosic wit, Hollenbeck has a varied, distinguished resume. He’s been honored with six Grammy Award nominations, a Guggenheim Fellowship (2007), the ASCAP Jazz Vanguard Award (2010) and has won multiple grants and contests related to composition. He’s been teaching emerging musicians since 2005, when he started at the Jazz Institute in Berlin as a professor of Jazz Drums and Improvisation. In 2015, he joined the faculty of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal. 

Though he possesses an extensive compositional background, Hollenbeck was quick to note in both one-on-one Zoom sessions that he was there simply as an added resource. “I’m here to help in any way. It could be very minute details. It could be about form or soloists. Which also means if you don’t need any help, I don’t have to say anything,” he shared in his meeting with Sato. 

As someone well aware of how easily composers can insert their ideas into the work of others, he was mindfully hands-off, providing as much creative space for the students as possible.

Sato’s Zoom session with Hollenbeck turned to compositional specifics once Sato shared his vision for the holiday folk tune “In the Middle of the Yard.” Hollenbeck perked up when he heard the selection – coincidentally, it’s one of the tunes he arranged for a Ukrainian folk music project he was working on for the Am I Jazz? Festival that was ultimately scrapped due to the 2022 Russian full-scale invasion. One of these works was given its West Coast premiere at Winter Fest. Hollenbeck’s experience with examining the Ukrainian folk tradition proved pivotal in advising how the students could respectfully arrange the material.

“I want a big band-esque composition with a ‘Duke Ellington’ kind of feel,” Sato shared, adding “I can visualize a good story from this piece.” When he began explaining the added variation he could bring to the melody, Hollenbeck advised a different approach.

“I’m positive you can add a bunch of great stuff to it,” he replied. “Before you start adding, you just have to make sure, in this case, that the stuff you add is helping and appropriate in bringing out the feeling of the piece. Some of the people that are going to be playing this melody, it’s going to be deeply meaningful to them. It’s folk music from their country that is in a war. It’s good to remember that.”

This piece has a repetitive vocal melody, but Hollenbeck outlined different techniques Sato could use to mine more information: piece apart the melody, checking for patterns with notes; note intervals and then group them two, three, or four notes at a time. “For me, what’s important about these methods is that, at first, I’m seeing how much I can do with the material without actually making anything up that’s coming from somewhere else,” he added. 

In his Zoom session with Darrow, Hollenbeck was more philosophical, explaining the need to find a proper balance between creative freedom and cultural sensitivity. 

The young pianist wanted to ensure there’s space for his compositional insight to be seen. Hollenbeck assured him it would be spotted. “For the Ukrainian musicians, if you arrange one of their pieces, for them it’s very obvious where you are in that arrangement,” he said.

With Winter Fest’s theme, however, there was a middle ground to reach, one that inserts creativity without losing the cultural relevance and resonance of the source material. “In this case, there’s a lot of baggage associated with this music already. So, I think the three of us all have to make sure what we’re doing is respectful,” cautioned Hollenbeck. He offered to share added resources Darrow could use to immerse himself more fully into Ukrainian folk music; Darrow eagerly accepted. 

While explaining how arranging and composing were essentially the same, Hollenbeck drew an analogy to cartoons, explaining a scene where Bugs Bunny’s surroundings are erased then suddenly replaced with a completely different location. “Think of arranging like that: Bugs Bunny is the theme,” he said. “You keep that the same, but then you can change everything around it – put them in a different room, in a different environment – and it can really transform the piece into something different than the original.”

Two weeks before the Winter Fest performance, I reached Hollenbeck by phone before one of his classes at McGill. There’s been minimal follow-up from the two All Stars, but as he’s well aware, his insights are there if needed. 

“I’m just trying to give the students some other ideas – not take away from what they already can do, but add to it to give some other possibilities, especially in those moments where they’re trying to find or finish something,” he noted of his approach. “A lot of my possibilities come from experience, and a lot of students don’t have that experience yet.”

His own journey was greatly informed by two musical voices: Bob Brookmeyer and Meredith Monk, both of whom shared valuable experience as he was a rising young musician. These mentors informed his compositional approach, now bolstered by decades of experience. Both All Stars may be at the start of their respective journeys—Hollenbeck shared that, as teens, both are likely in the “honeymoon phase” of composing—but he’s learned from years of experience as an educator that you can’t anticipate when something will be useful. He recalled receiving emails from former students who finally made creative breakthroughs related to information shared from years prior. “I can just trust myself, and ask them to trust me that someday this might make sense to you,” he said.

Reached by email, Pangilinan noted the personal strides he saw the two make during All Stars rehearsals in the lead-up to their performance.

“I frequently made space for Ryota and Jeremy to give and receive feedback,” he explained. “Encouraged by their peers, Ryota and Jeremy then began to assume direct control of the rehearsals from their positions in the band… Watching that dynamic unfold was inspiring. For both students, it was an important learning experience to take what they had composed and have it performed by real musicians.” 

In an email before the performance, Darrow shared that he chose to re-work the Ukrainian folk song  “Ой у полі, в полі два орли літає,” which translates to “Oh, In the Field, Two Eagles Fly.” His preview description explained that the arrangement made direct reference to the original melody before supplementing it in various ways.

After noting that his initial Zoom meeting with Hollenbeck “gave me the ‘musical annotation’ techniques to get ideas,” Sato explained that an email follow-up provided him with final feedback. “[Hollenbeck] told me small stylistic changes and voicing changes, and I quickly adjusted,” he said. Even with the feedback, Sato admitted he was worried. The lead-up to Winter Fest had been crowded with commitments, and he wasn’t sure if he had devoted enough time to his arrangement. That changed once the All Stars began rehearsing.

“When the band [started playing], I felt relieved that my composition sounded like an actual song!” said Sato.

On February 24, the members of the High School All Stars assembled on stage at the Tabard Theatre as best they could, with woodwinds and brass spilling over the apron as special Ukrainian guests squeezed in among the ensemble. 

“You’re the first audience to hear this stuff,” noted Pangilinan proudly prior to the band’s performance, a three-song set featuring Sato and Darrow’s arrangements followed by the All Stars’ performance of a Hollenbeck arrangement. Members of Hollenbeck’s band GEORGE joined in for portions of the performance.

Sato’s take on “In the Middle of the Yard” kicked off the set, his traditional big band arrangement featuring an array of solos. Though the All Stars only received final confirmation of which Ukrainian performers would join them the day before their performance, their musical contributions integrated beautifully. 

Darrow’s arrangement of “Oh, In the Field, Two Eagles Fly” followed. As previously noted, the song’s melody was introduced sans rhythm, then built force as new ensemble members joined in. The song transitioned into a samba with a driving, heavy rhythm and bright rim shots. Darrow’s melodic solo featured a light, Latin jazz touch, and Ukrainian Yakiv Tsvietinskyi’s trumpet solo brought power to the piece. 

Immediately following the All Stars’ performance, both young composers were glowing as they shared brief final thoughts in the chilly courtyard in front of the Tabard Theatre. Sato was excited about what the Ukrainian guest brought to his arrangement.

“I liked each soloist’s stylistic [choices],” he said. “Igor [Osypov] on the guitar, he was shredding all over those changes. [Trumpeter] Yakiv [Tsvietinskyi] was more melodic. This was my first time playing with international musicians. They bring a different color. It was a very good contrast that was pretty essential to the song now that I think about it.”

Darrow noted that, while the project challenged him, he was grateful for the knowledge he gained through the experience.

“At the start, it was a bit of a grueling process because I didn’t really know anything about Ukrainian folk music at all,” he explained. “That initial meeting I had with [Hollenback] gave me an idea of what the music is and how I should treat it with my arrangement. It was nice to be introduced to a new type of music, and see how that translates to something more familiar, which is jazz.”

Hollenbeck weighed in on what the evening likely meant for Sato and Darrow, reflecting on his own experience as a young composer.

“It’s an amazing thing,” he explained. “I remember what it’s like: You’re in your bedroom thinking about music, writing it down and playing things. That gives you a little idea, but when you actually play it with people, [you think] ‘Wait, I wrote that?’ When it turns into sound, and it comes into a room, it’s magical.”

Pangilinan believed that Sato and Darrow had created a ripple effect among the All Stars. Thanks to this opportunity, young musicians were seeing their peers grow and succeed in new ways, which allowed them to believe they could do the same. 

“I think it’s opened the doors for others to take steps to compose their own music,” he shared of the value this composition project brought to the entire ensemble. “There’s no better encouragement than seeing your peers succeed in my mind. You’re always going to get trailblazers like Ryota and Jeremy who are daring and bold enough to take the first step. Now that they have forged those paths, I can already see others eager to follow.”

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