John Hollenbeck – Songs I Like a Lot – Sunnyside SSC 1339, 69:04 ***1/2:
(John Hollenbeck – arranger, conductor, mallet percussion, producer, bicycle (track 6); Theo Bleckmann, Kate McGarry – vocals; Gary Versace – piano, organ; Frankfurt Radio Big Band: Martin Scales – guitar; Thomas Heidepriem – bass; Jean Paul Höchstädter – drums; Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn – alto & soprano saxophone, flute; Oliver Leicht – alto saxophone, clarinet, alto clarinet, flute; Julian Argüelles, Steffen Weber – tenor & soprano saxophone, flute; Rainer Heute – bass saxophone, bass clarinet; Frank Wellert, Thomas Vogel, Martin Auer, Alex Schlosser – trumpet, Flugelhorn; Günter Bollmann, Peter Feil – trombone; Christian Jaksjø – trombone, tenor horn; Manfred Honetschläger – bass trombone)
Drummer, percussionist and composer John Hollenbeck has a wide-ranging expertise which encompasses varied jazz settings, sometimes avant-garde, sometimes toward the mainstream. He fronts the Claudia Quintet, has functioned outside the jazz community in Klezmer and modern classical, and has melded jazz with other idioms. His credits, since emerging as part of the ‘90s Manhattan jazz scene, stretches musical margins: Meredith Monk, Fred Hersch, and Bob Brookmeyer are some of the artists he has teamed up with. On his latest project, Songs I Like a Lot, Hollenbeck again throws guidelines and expectations out the window, as he tackles Jimmy Webb, traditional folk, English hard rock, and indie electronica. Hollenbeck is well known by aficionados for crafting contemporary charts with a stimulating wit and verve, and deftly uses large ensembles to develop his ideas, a trait which pervades the seven tracks (totaling nearly 70 minutes) on Songs I Like a Lot.
Hollenbeck admits when he was younger he was a jazz snob and either ignored pop music or relegated such material to his mental delete button. But as he got older, Hollenbeck learned to appreciate the intricacies of some top-40 tunes. So when the Frankfurt Radio Big Band commissioned Songs I Like a Lot, the resulting album became both a display of resourcefully reshaped music and also a partnership for those concerned. Alongside the 16-member big band are two principal participants, singers Theo Bleckmann, who has previously been involved in other Hollenbeck ventures (see the Refuge Trio and the Claudia Quintet), and Kate McGarry (she and Hollenbeck supported Hersch’s 2005 Walt Whitman tribute, Leaves of Grass). McGarry and Bleckmann not only supply vocals to most cuts, they also assisted Hollenbeck in selecting some tracks. Considering how Hollenbeck tends to utilize a broad sonic canvas, it is no surprise he covers two Jimmy Webb pieces. The CD opens with “Wichita Lineman,” (a huge Glen Campbell hit), sung in tandem (not in harmony) by McGarry and Bleckmann. After an introduction which features guitarist Martin Scales, McGarry enters with a crystalline and respectful approach with unobtrusive acumen. Bleckmann takes the second chorus, with his typically singular and strong voicing. Hollenbeck furnishes inspired coloring and eddying woodwinds, but never strays from Webb’s central theme or recognizable melody: while the interpretation is distinctive from the pop version, the essence remains. Hollenbeck and the two vocalists intensify the album’s emotional quality on a slightly nostalgic, 14-minute reevaluation of “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” where the occasionally melancholy arrangement (highlighted by Gary Versace’s piano and Julian Argüelles’ tenor sax) brings to mind Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden’s translation (found on their 1996 duet, Beyond the Missouri Sky).
Bleckmann’s star turn comes during a finely-twisted, 11-minute performance of the folk standard “Man of Constant Sorrow,” (made famous in the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?). This multi-tinted presentation is legitimately memorable, and links Bleckmann’s pastoral soulfulness, Steffen Weber and Argüelles’ earthy tenor saxophones, Versace’s understated and lightly funky organ, and McGarry’s ghostly intonation. Purists may wrinkle their noses, but Hollenbeck provides a verdant sophistication which renders “Man of Constant Sorrow” as something different, in the realm of exponential exposition. McGarry’s expansive spotlight arrives via a picturesque, restrained reworking of Ornette Coleman’s “All My Life.” Coleman’s original (from his 1971 record, Science Fiction) was an otherworldly pop conception, sung by Asha Puthli. Here, Hollenbeck and McGarry maintain a passionate demeanor which reinforces the lyric’s tender tenacity but forego Coleman’s extraterrestrial landscaping.
Not many groups embraced the embellished pomp of prog and hard rock like Queen: the foursome’s flamboyance, kitschy humor and pseudo-classical inclinations lent grandeur to their theatrical music. While it would have made sense to overhaul “Bohemian Rhapsody” (perhaps next time), Hollenbeck instead redoes “Bicycle Race,” which was picked by McGarry. Luckily, Hollenbeck does not retreat from evoking Queen’s careering farcicality, and gives weight to the basically inane lyrics, lets the horn section have some offbeat moments, and halfway through Hollenbeck takes a unique percussion solo where he manipulates bicycle parts.
Songs I Like a Lot stays in mostly familiar waters, but by the end, Hollenbeck sails his sizeable ensemble into exotic territory, on Nobukazu Takemura’s “Fallslake.” Takemura is conspicuous for creating robotic, computer-manufactured, indie-dance music and Hollenbeck follows suit during his reading of “Fallslake,” seasoned by a groove-dappled beat and where acoustic instruments replicate electronic noises, although listeners will probably become edgy or irritated with Bleckmann and McGarry’s digitally-processed voices (one of the few instances where subtlety uncomfortably disappears). During the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival, Hollenbeck’s large ensemble did much better with another electronic-pop piece, an instrumental renovation of Kraftwerk’s “The Model.” Too bad “The Model” does not materialize on Songs I Like a Lot: maybe on a subsequent installment. Hollenbeck concludes with his own composition, “Chapel Flies,” which fans should identify (it’s on Hollenbeck’s 2002 undertaking, Quartet Lucy). Hollenbeck retains the tune’s pensive property (emphasized by piano and Bleckmann’s wordless chanting) but exploits the big band’s capabilities with some horn-laced shading.
TrackList: Wichita Lineman; Canvas; The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress; Man of Constant Sorrow; All My Life; Bicycle Race; Fallslake; Chapel Flies