Every ending a beginning, each conclusion an act of creation. If multi-hyphenate John Hollenbeck
's Songs You Like A Lot
doesn't slot within that sentiment, nothing really does. This collection marks the completion of a lauded trilogy that's stretched out across the better part of a decade, but it also signals the start of something newthe Flexatonic Arts non-profit, which will serve as an umbrella for Hollenbeck's arts and education initiatives, and the record label it houses, acting as a home for Hollenbeck's past releases and future projects.
Joining forces with the same titanic talents who appeared on Songs I Like a Lot
(Sunnyside, 2013) and Songs We Like a Lot
(Sunnyside, 2015) vocalists Theo Bleckmann
and Kate McGarry
, pianist/organist Gary Versace
and the Frankfurt Radio Big BandHollenbeck has his way with pop, disco, folk and stage classics, adding significant depth and dimension(s) to everything he touches. All of the selections, save for his own "Kindness," are part of a firm structure of collective cultural experiences we've spied through radios, concerts, films and/or theater, yet all prove perfectly malleable in the hands of this protean arranger.
One need only take a single listen to the opener"Down to the River to Pray," popularized through its inclusion in the 2001 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
to realize how Hollenbeck unlocks the potential within a composition. McGarry and Bleckmann offer a relatively faithful, harmonized introduction, but then each verse takes on its own character, both in line with and independent of the others. Not surprisingly, all aspects eventually reach a merger that demonstrates clear compatibility. Offering an expansive yet honest look at the original harmonies, some glimmering textural wonders, and notable solos from bassist Hans Glawischnig
, guitarist Martin Scales
and pianist Gary Versace
, it proves to be a highlight before anything else is even considered.
The remaining seven wonders further the image of Hollenbeck as a thoughtful writer. His take on Joni Mitchell's "Blue" blooms from a curious exchange from Versace's organ and Oliver Leicht
's clarinet, taking clearer shape as a gliding, soft-bedded beauty tailor-made for Bleckmann's voice. The interpretation of The Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love?" puts the titular question under examination, with angular assertions, swimming and dovetailing lines, exclamatory ensemble phrasing (around the question at hand), and propulsive grooving under Steffen Weber
's tenor stand. And "Fire and Rain" finds Glawischnig setting the scene, gracefully flowing streams reflecting a light in their crossings, Christian Jaksjø
adding his tasteful trombone to the mix, and McGarry making the well-covered vocals her own. Axel Schlosser
's funky trumpet work ushers in Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up," a rock-fronted performance that kicks off the second half of the album and eventually settles down on its familiar stylistic and sonic plane. The major twists? A role reversal, flipping the original Gabriel and Kate Bush parts for Bleckmann and McGarry, and a brief tangle leading to the curtains-signaling, emphatic "Don't" capper. Hollenbeck's "Kindness" follows, serving as the one true outlier on an album of fan-favorite familiars. But if it doesn't exactly fit the theme, it still manages to sit well in the mix. Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry serves as the spine of the composition and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band's sensitive treatment of Hollenbeck's writing elevates the words in motion.
With Hollenbeck's literal and topical embrace of "Pure Imagination," laid out as a kaleidoscopic fantasy for and by Versace and Bleckmann, and his brilliant derrangement of "God Only Knows" (dubbed "Knows Only God"), the album reaches a conclusion tied to the very essence of Hollenbeck's art. Creating music cradled by logic yet crafted with ingenuity, this brilliant artist reminds us why we liked these songs in the first place and how each one can serve as a vehicle for serious understanding and meaningful exchange(s) on multiple levels.
Down to the River to Pray; Blue; How Deep Is Your Love?; Fire and Rain; Don't Give Up; Kindness; Pure Imagination; Knows Only God (God Only Knows).
Manfred Honetschläger: bass trombone.