There are four potent musical personalities at play on Songs I Like A Lot. The first is the erstwhile leader, drummer John Hollenbeck, musical raconteur and general high-art roustabout. He has had a long association with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, both in big band settings on A Blessing (Omnitone, 2005) and with Claudia Quintet on What Is Beautiful? (Cuneiform, 2012). Bleckmann, in turn, is friends with vocalist Kate McGarry, who's Girl Talk (Palmetto, 2012) was a highlight of the year. From McGarry's past releases, including Girl Talk comes pianist/organist Gary Versace, completing our power quartet.
Songs I Like A Lot reveals Hollenbeck's omnivore musical taste. His recital includes Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" and "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress," Ornette Coleman's "All My Life," and Freddie Mercury's "Bicycle Race." That is a long throw. On just these pieces, Hollenbeck's arranging genius reveals itself in the vastness of his orchestration. "Wichita Lineman" swells over the horizon featuring a guitar introduction by Martin Scales that stops before McGarry in perfect voice. Bleckmann, equally pristine, sings the second verse, showing why he is considered a top vocalist of any genre.
Hollenbeck prefers softer tones, never overpowering the harmony with high brass and thunder. He has conceived his arrangements around the singers, allowing them an expansive comfort zone in which to operate. Imogen Heap's "Canvas" is set in moody confines, with McGarry and Bleckmann defying registers, singing as birds fly. "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress" is a sprawling, yet well-behave, fourteen-plus minutes. John Kelmandescribed the performances as:
If "Wichita Lineman" is cinematic, then Hollenbeck's arrangement of Webb's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is positively IMAX...
That is no understatement. Hollenbeck's arrangement and orchestration are both fully realized, with an other-dimensional counterpoint that is telegraphed throughout the piece, giving it a deceptive simplicity clothed in the complex. This performance is about as distant from Joe Cocker's organic 1974 recording on I Can Stand A Little Rain (A&M) as we are from the edge of the universe. Hollenbeck's transformation of the traditional "Man of Constant Sorrow" is no less expansive. The piece is introduced with tsunami of low reeds, establishing a confident tone picked up by Bleckmann, singing with a sophisticated combination of intelligence and grace. McGarry supplies some tasteful vocal gymnastics, her voice doubling the brass. Versace's impellent organ playing drives the piece through verses and solos. The piece's coda is Dixieland in the sixth dimension.
Ornette Coleman's "All My Life," originally sung by Asha Puthli on 1972's Science Fiction (Columbia), is given fresh treatment by Hollenbeck's inventive orchestration, capturing the Coleman's early '70s freedom, slowing the tempo down while adding colors with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Hollenbeck, with McGarry and Bleckmann, turn Freddie Mercury's "Bicycle Race" into a 22nd Century show tune, or, at least what we hope that would sound like. Songs I Like A Lot actually surpasses this wish. This is forward-thinking music whose nearest peer may be Nicholas Urie's My Garden (Red Piano Records, 2011), but otherwise knows no other...invention to return to again and again.
Wichita Lineman; Canvas; The Moon's a Harsh Mistress; Man of Constant Sorrow; All My Life; Bicycle Race; FallsLake; Chapel Falls.
John Hollenbeck: arranger, conductor, mallet percussion, bicycle; Theo Bleckmann: voice; Kate McGarry: voice; Gary Versace: piano. Organ; Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn: alto and soprano saxophones, flute; Oliver Leicht: alto saxophone, clarinet, alto clarinet, flute; Steffan Weber: tenor and soprano saxophone, flute; Julian Argüelles: tenor and soprano saxophone, flute; Rainer Heute: bass saxophone, bass clarinet; Frabk Wellert: trumpet, flugelhorn; Thomas Vogel: trumpet, flugelhorn; Martin Auer: trumpet, flugelhorn; Axel Schlosser: trumpet, flugelhorn; Günter Bollman: trombone; Peter Feil: trombone; Christian Jaksjø: trombone, tenor horn; Manfred Honetschläger: bass trombone; Maretin Scales: guitar; Thomas Heidepriem: bass; Jean Paul Höchstädter: drums.
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