Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Large Ensembles 2015 (Part 2)

John Hollenbeck is a composer, arranger, drummer and percussionist of the highest order.  He is the leader of the acclaimed Claudia Quintet and the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble plus has a list of sideman ranging from Meredith Monk to Tony Malaby to Fred Hersch and beyond.

"Songs We Like a Lot" (Sunnyside Records) is a follow-up to 2013's "Songs I Like a Lot" - both feature vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann plus the Frankfurt Radio Big Band who also commissioned both recordings.  Gary Versace (who, as an accordionist, is an integral member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra) plays keyboards on the 2013 recording (and appears on 1 track here) while Uri Caine is at he piano and organ for the newer disc. Both recordings feature an eclectic repertoire that takes inspiration from American pop music and folk music (plus a few surprises). The album opens with lovely take on "How Can I Keep From Singing", a Christian hymn that Pete Seeger learned from folklorist Doris Plenn and is attributed to the 19th Century minister Robert Lowry. Before Ms. McGarry sings the plaintive melody, the vibraphone of guest Claus Kiesselbach creates a contemplative mood as befitting the lyrics. The mix of reeds and brass bring Aaron Copland to mind.

Among the standout tracks is the impressive rearrangement and performance of "True Colors", the Tom Kelly/Billy Steinberg composition that was a big hit for Cyndi Lauper in 1986, with floating horns, played legato and an emotional vocal from Bleckmann. Ms. McGarry creates a assured reading of "Close To You" (the Bacharach-David tune that The Carpenters in 1970) while Bleckmann's falsetto backing mirrors the reed section.  When the rhythm section kicks in (great work from drummer Jean Paul Höchstäder), the vocals become wordless in the background behind the intertwined solos of Axel Schlosser (flumpet, a hybrid of flugelhorn and trumpet) and Martin Scales (guitar). The leader's infatuation with the songs of Jimmy Webb continues here with the inclusion of "Up, Up and Away" (the giant 1967 hit for The Fifth Dimension). The blend of the voices is lovely and Hollenbeck builds the arrangement off of the rhythms of the original.  The vibraphone shadows the vocalists in the middle of the piece before the pace of the song slows down as if this was now a dream. Everything shifts as the musicians and vocalists play a rearrangement of the opening verse. The surprising "Get Lucky Manifesto" pairs the performance of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" with a Russian translation of Pharrell Williams' lyrics dealing with sexual conquest.  The emotionless computer-generated female Russian voice adds a quirky twist to the dark section playing and throbbing drums.

photo by Bill Douthart
Hollenbeck (pictured left) sets the words of the Persian poet, Sufi mystic and scholar Rumi (1207-1273) to a hypnotic Middle Eastern rhythm for "Constant Conversation" - Versace's melodica plays in unison with soprano saxophone of Julian Argüelles while Bleckmann's electronically manipulated voice swirls and weaves in and out.  Ms. McGarry recites pieces of the poem, an ode to the reed, as the instruments pulsate and moan. Kenneth Patchen's poem "The Snow Is Deep On the Ground" (published 1943) supplies the words for the longest track on the recording (11:19), an episodic work that has qualities of the music of Terry Riley, Americana and more. The dark mood of the anti-war poem is matched by the horns throughout.

"Songs We Like a Lot" is yet another triumph for John Hollenbeck. His writing for large ensembles, nurtured by his relationships with Bob Brookmeyer and Meredith Monk, stands out among contemporary composer/arrangers, alongside the work of Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, and Michael Gibbs. This music will take several listens to begin to sink in - if you give the album time, the music will reward you time and again.

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Here's the Jim Webb song:


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