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Originally recorded in '96, years before Mike Holober's début small group recording Canyon (Sons of Sound, '03), Thought Trains is only now seeing the light of day, but it continues to assert the pianist/composer/arranger as a dominant new force on the New York scene. And while the larger ensemble context of Thought Trains limits the amount of spontaneous interplay that was prevalent on Canyon , it makes up for that kind of unrestrained exploration with sharp arrangements that make full use of his eighteen-piece Gotham Jazz Orchestra.
With a wide range of instrumental doubling, tripling and, in some case, quadrupling, Holober is able to paint with an extremely broad palette. From the more straightforward saxophone and trumpet section of the bright traditional piece "Jump Down, Spin Around" and the equally vivacious funk of "Big Sky," which features an outstanding solo from guitarist Dave Gilmore blending a strong sense of bebop and more contemporary blues, to the lighter use of oboe and French Horn on the more contemplative "Form x Mood," the closest precedent to Holober is in the larger orchestral works of composer/arranger Vince Mendoza. But where Mendoza often works around patterns that originate in computer sequences, Holober's approach is more organic, without losing any of its modernity and verve.
The strength of Holober's charts is evident in the level of musicianship. Players including legendary bassist Ron Carter; saxophonist Tim Ries, both a busy session man and leader in his own right; trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Tony Kadleck and saxophonist Charles Pillow, significant members of both the Maria Schneider Orchestra and/or the Village Vanguard Orchestra, all asked to participate if Holober ever had the opportunity to record these compositions. And the level of commitment shows in the playing. Ries may be best known as the saxophonist for the Rolling Stones, but here he's as committed and swinging as the best of them, with his solo on the title track demonstrating a player who is lyrical yet unpredictable. Carter's solo feature on "Waltz Medium" is filled with the deep groove and unexpected turns that have defined his career.
Holober combines his horns and woodwinds in ways that are bright but never brash. The press release refers to how "...challenging charts appeal to the best musicians; melodic, swinging tunes attract and sustain an audience." There's no question that Holober's lively charts, which manage to incorporate unique twists and turns without losing their innate sense of swing, are demanding of the players while remaining completely approachable by listeners.
And, while the record is more a forum for Holober's fine compositional and arranging skills, there's still plenty of space for his fine piano work, a strong blend of the Evans, Jarrett and Jamal schools. Thought Trains may have taken eight years to finally get released, but it's a timeless record, sounding as contemporary today as it did when it was first committed to tape. And as a companion piece to Canyon , it demonstrates just how broad Holober's musical reach truly is.
Track Listing: Jump Down, Spin Around; Big Sky; Waltz Medium; Thought Trains; Form x Mood; Let's Get Nice; Heart of the Matter; I Can See My Desk From Here
Personnel: Mike Holober (piano, composer, arranger); Dave Pietro (alto and soprano saxophones, flute, piccolo), Jon Gordon (alto saxophone, flute, clarinet); Tim Ries (tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet); Charles Pillow (tenor saxophone, oboe, flute, clarinet); Steve Kenyon (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet); Tony Kadleck (trumpet, flugelhorn); Scott Wendholt (trumpet, flugelhorn; Craig Johnson (trumpet, flugelhorn); Joe Magnarelli (trumpet, flugelhorn); Bruce Eidem (trombone); Pat Hallaran (trombone); Pete McGuinness (trombone); Nathan Durham (bass trombone); Eise Anshuetz (French horn); Dave Gilmore (guitar); Ron Carter (bass); John Rilly (drums)