Many bands have come together for the first time in a studio, shortly before a recording session. It’s safe to say that few had a multilayered personality quite like GEORGE, a quartet instigated by drummer John Hollenbeck.
Along with the drummer, who also leads the Claudia Quintet and the Large Ensemble, GEORGE includes Anna Webber (tenor saxophone, flute), Aurora Nealand (alto, soprano saxophones, voice), and Chiquita Magic (keyboards, voice). The far-flung experiences of the various members—which start with jazz and include electronica, new classical, and even rockabilly—means that lines blur continually between and even during songs. Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” features Nealand singing the lyrics freely while her bandmates engage in free improvisation. “Earthworker” feels like new wave exotica with wordless vocals floating over synths and flute.
The title Letters to George acknowledges that several tracks were inspired by people with that name. “Floyd” creates a telling reminder of the murder of George Floyd with free drumming, droning synths and saxophones, while and everyone takes turns repeating “My heart hurts.” Later, the groovy “Iceman” offers a hat tip to basketball legend George Gervin and “Clinton” does the same for the Parliament-Funkadelic leader. Hollenbeck understands that the latter homage doesn’t necessarily need to bring out the funk, so he and Webber engage in a rollicking duet before the quartet takes a smooth R&B setting and twists the rhythm repeatedly until it becomes something new. Although sounds collide at all angles, and the keyboards often bob between channels, Letters to George has a flow that never feels overpacked.