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John Hollenbeck: Songs I Like a Lot

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It’s easy to hear traces, in the songs drummer-composer John Hollenbeck likes a lot, of his melodic sense and cinematic structuring. His grasp of atmosphere and texture, though, is his own. That much is clear once he’s given command of the 16-piece Frankfurt Radio Big Band-and better yet, two singers, Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry-to give his distinctive, sublime touch to Songs I Like a Lot, an eclectic catalog ranging from Jimmy Webb to Ornette Coleman.

They’re thoughtful treatments. “Canvas” recreates the effects-laden guitar of Imogen Heap’s original, with Martin Scales on guitar and effects replicated by trumpet and wordless Bleckmann vocal. It’s an astonishing device, one that Hollenbeck equals in several places. There’s special beauty in his use of reeds, with clarinetist Oliver Leicht and bass clarinetist Rainer Heute intertwining on Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and Hollenbeck’s own “Chapel Files.” Keyboardist Gary Versace is a powerful resource too, his piano imbuing Coleman’s “All My Life” with delicacy and his Hammond organ aping weird electronics on Nobukazu Takemura’s “Falls Lake.”

The voices, however, are Hollenbeck’s most potent weapons. Bleckmann and McGarry both have a haunting sound. For McGarry, it’s most powerful in intimacy, as with her folk-ish confession on the otherwise swooping “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” and the plaintive self-surrender of “All My Life”; Bleckmann’s finest work is more dramatic, like “Man of Constant Sorrow” and his wordless grandeur on “Chapel Flies.” But when they harmonize on “Canvas” they transcend themselves. Hollenbeck’s been embedded with vocalists lately (Bleckmann and Kurt Elling guest on the Claudia Quintet’s 2011 disc, What Is the Beautiful? ), and Songs I Like a Lot makes it imperative that he continue.

Originally Published