|John Hollenbeck's Songs You Like A Lot |
The prolific composer/arranger/drummer John Hollenbeck released his adventurous Songs You Like A Lot back in August of this year. This album is the third in a trilogy that includes his Songs That I Like A Lot released in 2013 and Songs ThatWe Like A Lot from 2016.
The project initially had Hollenbeck taking some of his favorite songs from the popular music of his youth and re-imagining them. The second album followed with songs that were assembled from favorites by his collaborators and this final album selected compositions culled from an online vote by listeners.
In each case, Hollenbeck orchestrates the chosen songs using themes, varying rhythmic dynamics, and tonal texture, all possible using a creatively arranged big band. He employs the talented, Germany-based, Frankfurt Radio Big Band and a core group of collaborators. These include the sensitive and flexible vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, who he used on all three albums, along with the intuitive pianist/organist Gary Versace, who was on two of the albums, and the pianist Uri Caine who was used on the second album.
I first attended a performance of Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet in New Haven’s Firehouse 12 back in 2013 when he was touring the music of his wonderful original music album September which I reviewed (here) for the Huffington Post. I was so impressed with the creativity and passion of this composer/drummer that I kept him on my radar, listening when possible and later reviewing The Quintet’s 2016 release Super Petite-(here) , a suite of Hollenbeck originals drawn from daily life experiences.
|John Hollenbeck ( photo by Mercedes Jelinek)|
The big band format requires another set of skills. Hollenbeck, who acknowledges Bob Brookmeyer as one of his most important influences, has certainly taken his mentor's arranging acumen and expanded his teachings into his own expressive methodology.
Hollenbeck queries “Why arrange popular Songs? Is it still a ‘pop’ song if it wasn’t popular?” His ear has a radar-like acuity. He can key in on some of the most subtle nuances in this music. These subtleties are woven into the compositions that are almost subliminal to most, certainly not in the forefront. Hollenbeck uses his imaginative rethinking of these compositions to magnifying the nuances, which he uses to instigate discovery, evoke surprise, and awaken delight in the receptive listener. The old familiarity of the enjoyed song is still preserved but recharged and illuminated by the musician's creative process.
On the previous albums, the music featured composers as diverse as Jimmy Webb to Pete Seeger, Cyndi Lauper to Imogene Heap, and Burt Bacharach to Ornette Coleman. On Songs You Like A Lot, Hollenbeck was more restricted by the material. having to choose the compositions from a plethora of listener selections, some of which he admitted to not necessarily liking himself.
“Down by the River to Pray” is a moving folk hymn, made famous by Pete Seeger, that was especially meaningful to vocalist Kate McGarrywho opens the plaintive song with her transcendent lead vocal accompanied by Theo Bleckmann’s apt harmony. Glawschnig’s bass lines also add a notable musical reverence. Hollenbeck’s arrangement gets energized by Versace’s drone-like piano that mesmerizes you to the religiously resurrecting coda.
The music of Joni Mitchell has always been a wellspring of inspiration for artists and here Hollenbeck’s re-imagination of “Blue” from the 1971 album of the same name is revelatory. The arranger uses Versace’s creative organ adventures and the floating sound of Oliver Leicht’s clarinet in a dancing duo that repurposes and uplifts the piano solo in Mitchell’s original intro. Bleckmann’s haunting voice is heard singing these introspective lyrics. The song remains familiar, and the orchestration expands on the sentiment without overpowering it. The twinkling piano, soaring clarinet lines, and Beckmann’s vocals are all perfectly meshed. reinforcing just how personally exposing Mitchell’s music could be.
On James Taylor’s classic rock/folk “Fire and Rain,” Glawischnig opens with a plucky bass solo intro as the band’s horns modulate in unison. Hollenbeck always likes to modify expectations. Here he cleverly changes the gender that will sing this song and uses Kate McGarry’s crystalline female voice to full effect on the memorable lyrics. The arranger matches McGarry's higher-pitched tone dynamically with the deeper sound of trombonist Christian Jaksjo and the vocal/instrument pairing works brilliantly.
Invention is used by the arranger on the Bee Gees “How Deep is the Love,” which has a nice tenor saxophone solo by Steffen Weber and some inspired choirlike vocals by McGarry and Bleckmann.
Newly and Briscoe’s wonderful Willie Wonka theme song “Pure Imagination” finds Gary Versace’s lurid musical ideas laying out the theme on the piano. He uses a slightly dissonant intro as the band swells like bilious clouds in the background. The theme is transformed into a quest for a world of envisioned possibilities, with Bleckmann’s voice captures the mood, as the band creates the aural background. Hollenbeck’s arranging is cinematic and elegant. Versace’s playing is magically mystical, ethereal and Bleckmann’s voice transcendent.
Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” opens with a clarion trumpet lead-in by Alex Schlosser. Hollenbeck employs his progressive jazz/rock influences and drives the music with a pulsing band and the driving drums of Jean-Paul Hochstadter. Hollenbeck explores the song’s possibilities with an array of musical devices that include rhythmic variations, tonal diversity, and texturing. The arranger ends the song with a cadenced, drone-like repetition of the refrain “Don’t Give Up.”
Hollenbeck includes one original “Kindness,” a hymn-like composition that features McGarry’s expressive voice and the lyrics of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye. “Before you know what kindness is, you must lose things…”
The closing composition “Knows Only God” is a take on Brian Wilson’s song “God Only Knows” from the Beach Boys Pet Sounds album from 1966. Paul McCartney has said that ““God Only Knows” is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears… It's really just a love song, but it is brilliantly done.”
Theo Bleckmann opens Hollenbeck’s take on this composition using a repeated, rhythmic vocal pattern of Wilson’s opening lyrics. This is Hollenbeck’s chant-like interpretation of Wilson’s proclamation of love and frustrations. McGarry leads the second verse and she and Bleckmann join in sympathetic harmony. These two have are just so sympathetically connected by song. The arrangement directs the band to build-up the proclamation, and I daresay, emphasize the ambivalence of love. Hollenbeck has certainly obscured the sweetness of Wilson’s original sentiment, he has another vision. In the place of sweet love, the musician has injected a dynamism to the music that is more representative of the uncertainty, the ebb and flow of love.
John’s Song’s You Like A Lot has been recently nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Large Jazz Ensemble which will be held in Jan 2021. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and an often-brilliant album. We wish him the best!