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Mike Holober: Balancing Act

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Judging from his stellar work with the WDR Big Band, HR Big Band, Gotham Jazz Orchestra and several other large ensembles, pianist-composer-arranger Mike Holober is well practiced in the art of weighing disparate musical parts to achieve a balanced whole. Now, with his first album as leader in six years, he applies those skills to an octet with dazzling results. It is an ensemble filled with headliners, including vocalist Kate McGarry, trumpeter Marvin Stamm, saxophonist Dick Oatts and bassist John Hébert, and Holober provides each plenty of room to stretch out. Yet all are less interested in grandstanding than in contributing to the greater good.

Striking balance among the players is only half the equation. Across eight tracks, mostly Holober originals, the group navigates an intertwining series of polarities: darkness and light, turbulence and tranquility, chaos and order, cacophony and calm, panic and serenity, joy and sorrow, hope and regret. The album’s exuberant yin-yang is most profoundly evident in its two covers: A furtive reimagining of the Janis Joplin-associated “Piece of My Heart” juxtaposes the tenderness of Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel).” Such fine coalescence is tricky for vocalists, but McGarry handles her oscillating role with as much dexterous aplomb as her bandmates. Whether weaving wordlessly, as on the angular “Idris,” interpolating vocalese snippets or exploring a full lyric, she remains integral to Holober’s masterfully constructed holism.

Originally Published