John Hollenbeck is a drummer, composer, and arranger whose sensibility is now so unique and thoughtfully developed that it occupies its own niche in music. Hollenbeck is a brilliant student of big band arranging, yet he also leverages an interest in classical music so that his “large ensemble” charts seem to shimmer with (Philip) Glass-ian dazzle.
His latest concoction is a dream—and certainly the least likely collection of jazz arrangements of pop songs (sort of) you will hear this year. Songs I Like A Lot covers a wondrous array of tunes that Hollenbeck can’t resist. An admitted nerd with a relatively narrow connection to rock, he has chosen a set of idiosyncratic tunes that let him channel melody and lyrics into something more transcendent through his unique style.
The collection starts with a track of utter bliss: a rethinking of Jimmy Webb’s famous “Wichita Lineman”, featuring both Hollenbeck’s regular vocalist, Theo Bleckmann, and Kate McGarry. Hollenbeck sets the woodwinds of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band into a quavering set of patterns that burble with minimalist beauty before McGarry states the first verse accompanied by rhythm and pianist Gary Versace. Patterns fill the song between verses like woven silk. After Bleckmann’s verse, the patterns grow more complex, with Hollenbeck’s mallet percussion setting up a stuttering pattern and a guitar restating the melody in half-time, with the melody eventually doubled by wordless vocals and horns, even as the brass sets down a bed of shifting chords. In its final minutes, the arrangement essentially cuts itself loose of its source and floats off into bliss.
This tune is so inventively beautiful, so unlike any other jazz or pop or classical music you can hear elsewhere—it sets the bar so high that the rest of Songs I Like A Lot is playing continual catch up. But it mostly does keep up.
The other tune composed by Webb, “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”, is interpreted in an arrangement that begins as a spare duet for Versace and McGarry and then sets up a continually shifting web of pulses, quavers, and arpeggios. This piece is as delicate as, well, as a moonbeam, mixing little bits of bossa nova rhythm under a chiming Versace solo, and then growing more and more insistent as the brass creates little punches of rhythm and as the volume slowly builds. Eventually there are snakelike twining melodies for brass and vocals and percussion, and the arrangement rises up the horizon like, well . . . like the moon, you bet. It is beautiful and ingenious at once. It is, one is tempted to say, not merely ingenious but actually genius.
Not every track is at this level, but so many are. What Hollenbeck has done here at least seems to surpass his original composing in this realm because applying this style to reasonably well-known songs demonstrates the transformative power of the artist’s original voice. Having heard “Harsh Mistress” on Songs I Like A Lot, my desire to hear it done by Glen Campbell or Judy Collins vanishes—because Hollenbeck’s fully integrated arrangements complement the material so fully. “Wichita Lineman” without the slowed down guitar line? Who’d bother?
The less familiar material is similarly lifted here. Ornette Coleman’s “All My Life” makes a case as a lost standard—a truly beautiful melody that is stated lushly but plainly by McGarry before the band melts all over the rhythm in stating it differently but perfectly again. Imogen Heap’s “Canvas” sets up as a quick groove tune over a plucked acoustic guitar feeling, but the arrangement keeps adding and subtracting elements so that the listener is continually surprised. A late key change elevates this sense of surprise with dramatic results. And then there is the darkly established introduction to “Man of Constant Sorrow”, all growling brass and free-form drumming, that drops you into the dancing groove of the actual song, set over a strummed folk guitar.
“FallsLake” is a tune by Nobukazu Takemura, a Japanese musician who is known for ambient and house music. Hollenbeck provides with more throbbing beauty from brass and flutes but also a slow groove drum feel and processed vocals that come through a high-low filter. It’s a textural triumph and, perhaps, a bit more playful that the more shimmering tunes here.
I don’t have the same affection for “Bicycle Race”, a sing-song tune by Queen that had a cheeky theatrical naughtiness in its original version. Hollenbeck simply doesn’t have all that much to fiddle with on the song’s already-odd and campy main section. He just amps up the orchestral possibilities until he gets to a percussion solo (Hollenbeck, apparently, playing on an actual bike) that leads to the fantasia section, with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band getting some cool stuff to play. Now, many I’m just not much of a Queen fan, but my hope was that the head arrangement (as on “Lineman”) would never return. But it does, and it’s tiresome.
There is one original song here, “Chapel Flies”, which is in many ways the most conventional piece of music on Songs I Like A Lot. It floats on a left-hand piano bass line and a relatively standard set of orchestral cushions that let the gentle melody rise in a series of waves. Like all of Songs, though, it is a textural triumph—a set of beautiful sounds that pile up in lush beauty but without any seeming precedent in jazz or elsewhere.
And that’s a fine summary of this sumptuous and unprecedented album by John Hollenbeck. I’ll be listening to it almost continually until something equally gorgeous appears. And that could be a very long time.