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Mike Holober: Balancing Act

Dan Bilawsky By

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Conceptualizing and creating music is a delicate balancing act, leaving composers to strive for symmetry between head and heart, reasoning and intuition, and structure and freedom. Who better to understand that than Mike Holober? Whether penning a piece or playing piano, Holober has always shown himself to be mindful of the need to find harmony between those and other opposing principles. It's his ability to do so that, in large part, has made him such a hot commodity in the big band world. Recent years have found him to be very busy working with the Westchester Jazz Orchestra and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra in New York, the HR Big Band and the WDR Big Band in Germany, and other high profile European ensembles like the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra and the Zagreb Jazzorkestar. But he hasn't resigned himself to live out life exclusively in the big band domain. With Balancing Act, Holober introduces a new band made up of longtime collaborators and reaffirms his power as a mover and shaker in small(er) settings.

In putting together the titular octet for this project, Holober brought together some of the most remarkable personalities on the scene today—singular artists like vocalist Kate McGarry, drummer Brian Blade, and saxophonist Dick Oatts. Every member of this band is a potential scene-stealer, and each has a chance to shine at various points throughout the album, but this remains a group statement. Holober's guidance and multi-hued compositions allow this ensemble to speak, flow, and flourish as one.

The program consists of five Holober originals of varying vintage and style, including the perceptive "Book Of Sighs," metaphorically-motivated "Grace At Sea," and Brazilian-tinged "When There Were Trains"; a contribution from multireedist Jason Rigby—the slick groove workout "Idris"—which gives a nod in name and spirit to the late Idris Muhammad; and two covers from outside of the jazz milieu—a stargazing take on Billy Joel's "Lullabye: Goodnight My Angel" and a version of "Piece Of My Heart" that's worlds away, both sonically and spiritually, from Janis Joplin's famed rendition.

While Holober's ability to plait the participating musicians with his pen and his piano is central to the success of this album, it's hard not to take note of some standout contributions: McGarry's second act on "Book Of Sighs"—a section of this soul-searching odyssey dealing with two sides of different emotional coins—brings the meaning of the song into sharp relief; Rigby and trombonist Mark Patterson are the tides that influence "Grace At Sea"; Blade greases the groove rails and delivers a sensational solo on "Idris"; Oatts outdoes himself on "Canyons"; and Holober has more than a few shining moments of his own, ably slaloming through aggressive environments and giving off semi-impressionistic thoughts in cooler settings.

With Balancing Act, Holober has managed to apply his large artistic ambitions on a smaller-than-usual scale without compromising a single thing. It's a work that speaks both to solidarity and individuality. A better name for such a band and album doesn't exist.

Track Listing: Book Of Sighs; Idris; Lullabye: Goodnight My Angel; Grace At Sea; Piece Of My Heart; Canyon; Sighs Matter; When There Were Trains.

Personnel: Mike Holober: piano; Kate McGarry: voice; Marvin Stamm: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dick Oatts: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Jason Rigby: tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Mark Patterson: trombone; John Hebert: bass; Brian Blade: drums.

Title: Balancing Act | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Palmetto Records

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