CD reviews

John Hollenbeck – “Songs You Like A Lot”

John Hollenbeck – Songs You Like A Lot
(Flexatonic Records Flex001. CD review by Peter Bacon)

This release completes the trilogy of popular songs re-arranged by John Hollenbeck that began with Songs I Like A Lot (Hollenbeck’s personal choice) and continued with Songs We Like A Lot (which expanded to the choices of his singers throughout the project, Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry).

This time – you guessed it – the selection is drawn from listeners’ suggestions. The initial long list was reduced to 20 via an online vote, the final choice being that of the arranger together with the singers and keyboard soloist on both the first album and this one, Gary Versace. The band for all three discs is the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.

So what did “we” choose?

The album opens with Down To The River To Pray, thought to be a slave song from the 19th century and given a new lease of life at the beginning of the 21st courtesy of the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou. Over the course of its nearly seven minutes it develops from the solo voice of McGarry, through a compellingly harmonised duet with Bleckmann and a further expansion of the harmony by Versace. A brief double bass interlude from Hans Glawischnig leads into a return by the singers and a gentle expansion into three, four and five-part harmony with the big band’s woodwinds (both singers have the perfect vibrato-free tone and musicality to blend as horns). An electric guitar solo from Martin Scales provides another interlude, and when the singers return once more Hollenbeck’s score starts to fill the staves of the whole band and it rises to a finale with the grandeur of the full Appalachian mountain range. Think Copland, or maybe even Ives.

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With his stall thoroughly set out, Hollenbeck can be confident his listeners will want to enjoy similarly inventive re-workings of some fairly obvious choices: Joni Mitchell’s Blue, James Taylor’s Fire And Rain and Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give Up. Wisely, Hollenbeck gender-switches Mitchell and Taylor to ensure added freshness, so Bleckmann gets Blue while McGarry gets Fire And Rain. Both feature generous, strongly-arranged introductions, though the one for Fire And Rain doesn’t have the most natural fit – I felt a slight disjunct when we reached “Just yesterday morning…” 

There is a Hollenbeck original called Kindness which is pleasant enough and might grow with each listen but at this point doesn’t quite match the inevitable, deep-seated familiarity of the covers, and a slightly unexpected choice is the Lesley Bricusse/Anthony Newley hit Pure Imagination. Both are expertly done.

The real stand-out gems in this impeccably-worked tiara of tunes are the Gibb brothers’ How Deep Is Your Love and Brian Wilson/Tony Asher’s God Only Knows. Hollenbeck acknowledges the extent of his re-working of the Beach Boys classic by renaming it Knows Only God. Both feature the kind of rhythmic sophistication that one might expect of an arranger who is also a drummer.

How Deep… gets a re-worked beat which frees it from the disco floor yet maintains its rhythmic push. Hollenbeck then dresses it with minimalistic, busy-bubbling woodwinds while McGarry stretches the lyric across it in “half-time” – is that the right phrase? When the chorus comes, both singers and band build the impact and the harmonic wealth. As the song unfolds we get further rhythmic switches and an expressive tenor solo from Steffen Weber against the stuttering organ of Versace and great washes of brass.

Knows Only God takes as its starting point the short phrases Brian Wilson stacked up in the final fugue section of what many would argue is his greatest song, before settling into warmly grooving verses with re-voicings from both vocal soloists and the band sections that would surely have its composer skew-grinning in appreciation. Again, Hollenbeck’s skill in mixing minimalistic busyness in the upper woodwinds and brass with more straight-ahead jazz-rock big band writing for the lower horns works a treat, and the whole thing builds to a fabulous layering of repeat phrases throughout the ensemble. In the silence that fell after the final chord I had to resist a distinct urge to rise from my sofa and applaud the space between the hifi speakers.

This is the first release from Flexatonic Arts, which Hollenbeck has formed to consolidate all his work, including his back catalogue. He describes it as “an organisational headquarters for all of my cultural and educational activities, and a vehicle for embracing the initiatives of like-minded colleagues”.

LINK: Visit John Hollenbeck’s website to find out more

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