John Hollenbeck – Songs We Like a Lot [TrackList follows] – Sunnyside SSC 1412, 57:05 [6/23/15] ****:
(John Hollenbeck – composer, arranger, conductor, producer; Theo Bleckmann – vocals; Kate McGarry – vocals; Uri Caine – piano, organ (except track 3); Gary Versace – melodica, organ (track 3); Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn – alto and soprano saxophone, flute; Oliver Leicht – alto saxophone, alto clarinet, flute; Tony Lakatos – tenor and soprano saxophone (except track 3); Julian Argüelles – soprano saxophone (track 3); Steffan Weber – tenor and soprano saxophone, flute, bass clarinet; Rainer Heute – bass saxophone, bass and contra-bass clarinet, clarinet; Frank Wellert, Thomas Vogel, Martin Auer – trumpet, Flugelhorn; Axel Schlosser – trumpet, Flugelhorn, flumpet (track 4); Günter Bollmann, Peter Feil – trombone; Christian Jaksjø – trombone, baritone horn, bass trumpet; Manfred Honetschläger – bass trombone; Martin Scales – guitar; Thomas Heidepriem – bass; Jean Paul Höchstädter – drums; Claus Kiesselbach – mallet percussion, timpani)
There is adventurous, risk-taking creativity on John Hollenbeck’s hour-long Songs We Like a Lot, the follow-up to his 2013 Grammy-nominated album, Songs I Like a Lot. Both CDs are notable for how Hollenbeck has utilized or re-used his own work, other people’s pop songs, folk material, poetry and other sources and put a personal spin on them, sometimes reconstructing well-known tunes into music which is hardly recognizable. During Songs We Like a Lot Hollenbeck again collaborates with vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, pianist Uri Caine and the Frankfurt Radio Bigband. Some of the seven tracks are new, but some Hollenbeck listeners may know others.
There is a sense of appreciation throughout, even when Hollenbeck curves and manipulates music into his own vision. The two lead-in pieces are an example of how Hollenbeck retranslates but never loses faith with songwriters’ intentions. The CD opener is the exquisite Christian hymn, “How Can I Keep from Singing,” made popular (and co-written) by folksinger Pete Seeger. Hollenbeck turns this into a tribute to Seeger, who passed away in 2014. The lengthy version (it runs 9:20) begins slowly with vibes introducing the melody, then piano enters in a vibes/piano duet, woodwinds slip in, and gradually more instruments coalesce as the arrangement builds to a lovely tremor with fine upsurges. McGarry’s opulent singing comes in about 3 1/2 minutes in, and then she and Bleckmann start harmonizing. Bleckmann also contributes wordless and beautiful vocalizations, which at one point poise effectively against Steffan Weber’s soaring tenor sax. Track two is a barely identifiable adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s 1986 song, “True Colors.” Hollenbeck fashions an intricate configuration with confident characteristics. During the nearly ten-minute excursion, there are trace elements of Lauper’s melodic lines, but often Hollenbeck’s arrangement is a feature for his unique individuality. Bleckmann and McGarry veer some of the lyrics into a mantra at specific moments, and the ensemble alters the tune during some idiosyncratic sections.
Hollenbeck twists further into eccentric territory on a reimagined rendering of Daft Punk’s dance cut, “Get Lucky,” which is so different that Hollenbeck named his rendition “Get Lucky Manifesto.” Hollenbeck transforms the music and also inserts a Russian voiceover via a text-reading, computer-generated voice, which according to Hollenbeck, is “what I think the Russian Police Choir should have sounded like when they sang [“Get Lucky”] at the Sochi Olympic Games opening ceremony.” On the flip side, Hollenbeck summons familiarity on two other covers. McGarry takes the lead on a sumptuous reading of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Close to You,” made famous by the Carpenters. Hollenbeck extends the tune to eight minutes, which offers room for McGarry to give emotional weight to the romance-affected words, and space for the large group to supply audio coloring, plus expressive solos from Axel Schlosser on the rarely-heard flumpet (which blends the qualities of the trumpet and Flugelhorn) and Martin Scales on guitar, who is slightly overwhelmed in the mix by the swelling woodwinds and horns. The album closer is a heightened interpretation of Jimmy Webb’s “Up, Up & Away,” a radio oldie by the Fifth Dimension. Here, Hollenbeck applies the Frankfurt Radio Bigband’s full potential, ballooning at times, bringing things back to earth, and then driving the music up to a high upwelling.
Hollenbeck includes two cuts which he’s done previously. “Constant Conversation” has been part of Hollenbeck’s repertoire for years. It was on his 2002 contemporary classical release, Quartet Lucy, and was performed at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival. The Middle Eastern-tinged motif underpins McGarry’s spoken word recital, based on lyrics by 13th-century poet and mystic Rumi. A droning riff and an insistent melody yield an ambiance which imparts a world-music and jazz tint. This is the only track from a 2010 session, and is thus the only one with keyboardist Gary Versace (on melodica and organ), who also was heard on Songs I Like a Lot. The other selection Hollenbeck fans might know is “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground,” with lyrics by poet/artist Kenneth Patchen. Hollenbeck formerly recorded this for the Claudia Quintet’s 2012 project, What Is the Beautiful? Bleckmann recreates his vocal presentation with McGarry’s assistance, while Hollenbeck broadens his arrangement to incorporate a comprehensive brass sound and a mantle of warm woodwinds. There are few composers, arrangers and musicians such as John Hollenbeck. He has the uncanny ability to construct stirring music which can be disconcerting and also captivating. He’s certainly found that balance on Songs We Like a Lot, where he’s conceived a place of discovery and rediscovery.
TrackList: How Can I Keep from Singing; True Colors; Constant Conversation; Close to You; Get Lucky Manifesto; The Snow Is Deep on the Ground; Up, Up and Away.