It's hard to resist, at the very least, looking
at an album with as honest and unassuming a title as Songs I Like a Lot
; but it's even harder to resist when it turns out that the instigator is John Hollenbeck, founder of and primary composer for Claudia Quintet
the chamber jazz ensemble which has, over the course of six albums in nine years, completely defied definition and categorization, beyond combining improvisational prowess and the ability to subtly interpret through-composed music. When Hollenbeck releases a recording under his own name, it's generally in a larger-scale environment, and Songs I Like a Lot
is no different, a collaboration with the 16-piece Frankfurt Radio Big Band. But what makes the album different than any that have come before is that, with the exception of one track, this is a collection of cover songs that cover a broad range of sources, from Jimmy Webb to Imogen Heap; from Freddie Mercury and Queen to traditional folk music; and from maverick Japanese composer Nobukazu Takemura to renegade free jazz progenitor Ornette Coleman
. It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Hollenbeck's unshackled proclivities.
It should also come as no surprise that Hollenbeck's intent was to interpret these songs with
singers. Given the breadth of material, it's no surprise that Theo Bleckmann
is one of two singers recruited for Songs I Like a Lot
. Something of a renegade himself, Bleckmann is no stranger to Hollenbeck's recordings, having collaborated regularly, from 2005's A Blessing
(OmniTone) through to Claudia Quintet's recent What is Beautiful?
(Cuneiform, 2012). Hollenbeck also enlists another familiar face in Gary Versace
, a keyboardist who, from guitarist John Scofield
and composer/arranger Maria Schneider
, to Claudia Quintetwith whom he guested on Royal Toast
(Cuneiform, 2010)has demonstrated the kind of versatility Hollenbeck's music doesn't just ask, it demands
What is, perhaps, a bigger surprise is the appearance of singer Kate McGarry
though, with Versace a regular collaborator since her third record as a leader, The Target
(Palmetto, 2007), there's already a clear connection to the musical circles these players inhabit. McGarry is, in fact, the first voice heard on Hollenbeck's expansive version of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman," and his instincts are justified from the first note she sings, combining pure and reverent delivery with understated interpretation. It's a song that's been covered many times but never so cinematically. McGarry shares the tune with Bleckmann, and if the two are ideal on their own, it's how their timbres complement each othereven though they rarely sing togetherthat further makes them such astute choices. As for his arrangement, Hollenbeck's skill at taking small but defining motifs from an original song and use them as starting points for broader orchestrations is what makes this set of eight tunes so successful.
If "Wichita Lineman" is cinematic, then Hollenbeck's arrangement of Webb's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is positively IMAX. Opening intimately, with McGarry's voice and Versace's piano alone together, a layer of flutes slowly insinuates itself into the arrangement, followed by a minimalist Steve Reich
ian pulsefrom Hollenbeck, on marimba, and guitarist Martin Scalesthat soon becomes an undercurrent over which the episodic piece builds, over fourteen minutes, to a breathtaking climax of swirling melodies that, despite the seven-second gap between them, seems to run conceptually into an equally unfettered arrangement of "Man of Constant Sorrow," made popular in the new millennium by the Coen Brothers' popular film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
(2000). The traditional folk tune's tempestuous introall low horns and tumultuous drumsseems to make perfect sequential sense, even as it leads to a second section of strummed acoustic guitar and Bleckmann's delivery of the familiar tune: the call to McGarry's response. It is, however, more Midwestern, perhaps, than Deep South, especially when saxophonist Julian Arguelles
' tenor solo soars over Scale's rapid strumming to recall the spirit of guitarist Pat Metheny
's classic 80/81
There's plenty more, from Hollenbeck's rubato arrangement of Ornette Coleman's "All My Life"laying bare the alto saxophonist's inherent lyricism, despite coming from the more extreme Science Fiction
(Columbia, 1971)to a version of Queen's "Bicycle," which is clever without being coy, and Hollenbeck's sole compositional contribution, "Chapel Files," closing the album on a gentler note. These may be songs Hollenbeck likes, but it's how he hears
them and, subsequently, arrange them for this large ensemble that's indicative of an unerring ability to find good music in any corner, nook or cranny, turning it into something personal without ever losing what made
it so good in the first place.