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Mike Holober: Balancing Act

Mark Sullivan By

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Pianist/composer Mike Holober has had an active career with big bands (including HR Big Band Frankfurt, WDR Big Band Cologne, Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, and the Westchester Jazz Orchestra in the U.S.). So he brings a refined approach to the composing and arranging on this octet recording. He set himself an ambitious goal: to feature a vocalist, but as another frontline instrument rather than the primary focus. "I wanted to use a singer and lyrics in extended form compositions—not wrapped up in repetitive sections or stanzas, and not as just songs," he says. Vocalist Kate McGarry appears on all eight tracks, often singing wordless vocalise.

The approach is best demonstrated in the four extended compositions for which Holober composed both music and lyrics, as in the opening "Book of Sighs." McGarry's voice is a perfect match right from the start: light and agile, capable of clearly projecting lyrics as well as blending in with other instruments. True to Holober's stated intent, the piece moves on from the opening vocal statement to an extended instrumental form, with solos interspersed. While there is plenty of opportunity for individual band members to shine, there is never a feeling of basic blowing over changes. Holober also demonstrates a real flair for lyric writing: "I read the Book of Sighs/Chapter One, your eyes...It was more than I could take in just one night."

Holober and saxophonist Jason Rigby both contribute songs without lyrics, and there are two intriguing cover songs, both modern pop rather than standards. Billy Joel's lovely "Lullabye: Goodnight My Angel" gets an extended version that subverts expectations by giving most of the melody to horns, with occasional wordless vocals—no lyrics are sung until the very end. The Jerry Ragavoy-Bert Berns classic "Piece of My Heart" (most strongly associated with Janis Joplin) gets a rhythmic and harmonic makeover. It sounds different enough from the original that a listener might not place it at first, and it fits right in with the rest of the program.

It's an altogether ambitious project, but the music never shows it. The compositions and arrangements are wonderfully realized—full of joy and energy, regardless of their complexity.

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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