John Hollenbeck: Songs We Like a Lot

We seem to be going through a big-band renaissance. In recent months, I've hailed the latest albums by Maria Schneider's Orchestra, Steve Coleman's Council of Balance, Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Project, and now—in some ways, the most adventurous—John Hollenbeck's Songs We Like a Lot (on the Sunnyside label).

Like his 2013 forerunner Songs I Like a Lot, it features the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, augmented by keyboardist Gary Versace (as well as, this time out, Uri Caine), with vocals by Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry. The tracks are covers of widely varied pop songs—Pete Seeger's "How Can I Keep from Singing," Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," Burt Bacharach and the Carpenters' "Close to You," Jimmy Webb and the Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up and Away," among others—but Hollenbeck infuses them with irresistible wit and buoyant intricacy.

This is fun stuff. You can just bask in it if you want, but it's a lot more fun if you listen really closely.

Hollenbeck studied with Bob Brookmeyer, as did most of today's best big band leaders, it seems, but he's also played with Meredith Monk, and shards of Glass, Ives, Cage, Carla Bley, and (yes) conventional jazz, and a little bit of raucous disco, pierce through his music, as well.

He's a conceptual artist by temperament. One of his groups, the Claudia Quintet, is named after a woman named Claudia who raved about the band after one of its concerts, said she'd come back again often, but never did; one of the group's best albums, The Royal Toast, is so called, Hollenbeck has said, because he likes toast. When I saw him play the music from this new album (though with a different, New York group of musicians), in a recent concert at Roulette in Brooklyn, he introduced "Up, Up and Away" by saying, dryly, that it's based on the premise of a big, beautiful balloon flying in the air.

As for that concert: it was a bit of a mess. This is crazy difficult music. Listen to the multiple rhythms, counterpoints, and complex harmonies on the rampage in every song; yet sit back and take in how it all fits together, washes over you so seamlessly, at least the CD does, I suspect because much fixing could be done in the mixing. Playing this music live requires a lot of rehearsal, which I take it the New York band didn't have. May Hollenbeck receive unexpected bounties of success, and well-deserved foundation grants, to rectify this limit soon!

Back to the album: Uri Caine and Gary Versace add color, spice, and strength. Theo Beckman, who has sung with Hollenbeck for years, knows just what mix of deadpan and passion to apply. Kate McGarry, an Irish folk singer with great rhythmic versatility, pours on layers of sheer loveliness. (The singers were also at the concert, wonderfully so.)

The sound quality is good enough: better than that in capturing the singers and upfront soloists, but the band seems spread out on flat cardboard, though all the instruments are clear, anyway.