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John Hollenbeck to release new CD “Songs I Like a Lot” on Jan. 29

John Hollenbeck didn’t seek out popular music when he was kid, but it was always there, and it became an undeniable part of him. Songs I Like a Lot (to be released Jan. 29 on Sunnyside Records) is an album on which the adventurous and internationally renowned composer, esteemed for his ability to strike upon new sounds, turns instead toward familiar forms, and weaves other peoples’ songs into his own unique tapestry.

Growing up in Binghamton, New York, Hollenbeck frequently heard “Wichita Lineman,” a song originally by pop writer Jimmy Webb, as sung by one of his father’s favorite pop balladeers Glen Campbell. Although he was more interested in music that sounded new to him, Webb’s songwriting left an indelible impression. For Songs I Like a Lot, Hollenbeck scoured his memory in search of songs that had similarly become inextricable from his musical outlook. He compiled a big list, and whittled it down with help from vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, who are featured on the album, along with pianist Gary Versace.

Commissioned by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, who also recorded the album, Songs I Like a Lot became an exhibition of imaginatively remolded songs from a diverse array of musical worlds. The album contains covers of songs by Jimmy Webb, avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the power pop band Queen, sound artists Nobukazu Takemura and Imogen Heap, and the traditional Appalachian ballad “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Broad in their stylistic range, the songs have each carved out a distinct path, and are now connected by having been cast anew with Hollenbeck’s dexterous hand.

John Hollenbeck, the drummer and composer who, according to the New York Times, “inhabits a world of gleaming modernity,” has developed a career based on fusing jazz, classical minimalism, rock, and avant-garde music. He has stunned jazz audiences with his work in Claudia Quintet, and is a rising star in new music circles thanks to his collaborations with vocalist Meredith Monk, and for pieces commissioned by Bang on a Can and the People’s commissioning fund, Ethos Percussion Group funded by the Jerome Foundation, Youngstown State University, Gotham Wind Symphony, Melbourne Jazz Festival, Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and the University of Rochester.

Past projects for the Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble have featured renderings of other composers’ works, such as “Foreign One,” a track from the album External Interlude that flips and gnarls the themes from pianist Thelonious Monk’s “Four in One.” On Songs I Like a Lot, the approach is different:

“Usually when I arrange, I totally dissect and put the piece back together in my own way,” Hollenback said in a news release. “But this time, I knew the song must be intact and recognizable, so that was the challenge. Some pieces are close to the originals, and I concentrated on orchestration, and giving them a different twist. Others are far away, but still maintain the essence of the original.”

Despite the challenge of having to maintain the structure of the songs he arranges, Hollenbeck manages to treat each piece with his inimitable style, replete with lush and tightly dissonant chords, glimmering as a result of using woodwinds such as flutes and clarinets intermingled with brass instruments. The machine-like repetitive rhythms, inspired by the motoric pulses of minimalism, give the music a sense of unfaltering motion and direction.

The results are songs that are no less familiar, moving, or catchy than they were in their original states. Instead, they unfold dramatically and unexpectedly, and are permeated with grand gestures and subtle overlapping textures that draw out and increase the overall intensity without tampering with the songs’ driving cores. As Hollenbeck says of Songs I Like a Lot, “all I can say is that this music is still pop to me… and I’m not trying to unpop it.”

 

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Producer Rio Sakairi pays tribute to Japanese earthquake/tsunami victims with project

“Call me romantic, but I believe in the power of music and its ability to heal and uplift,” said Rio Sakairi, director of Programming at The Jazz Gallery, an internationally recognized breeding ground for young musical talent in New York City in a news release. It is this sentiment that inspired her into action, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. Marking one of the worst natural disasters on record, the earthquake spawned devastating tsunamis and a subsequent nuclear crisis. The insurmountable destruction claimed tens of thousands of lives, and the world watched in horror. For Sakairi, it was more than an unfathomable tragedy; it literally hit home.

Born and raised in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki – just two hundred miles from the severely ravaged Sendai area – Sakairi was inspired immediately into action. She called upon an esteemed roster of friends and colleagues within the thriving jazz scene, and they came together to create a gift to those who suffered such incredible loss. HOME – Gift of Music is an eight-song manifesto of hope from some of today’s most innovative musicians in jazz and beyond, including Gretchen Parlato, Doug Wamble, Becca Stevens, Alan Hampton, John Ellis and Claudia Acuña. Scheduled for release on September 11, 2012, on Sunnyside Records, the singer-songwriter leaning repertoire captures the huge emotive capacity of the artists, with an intimacy as personal as a love letter. The fullness of their hearts is evidenced by the immediacy with which they were able to unlock their overflowing expression of compassion, empathy and, ultimately, optimism.

Sakairi’s reputation as a concert producer has placed her among the most influential figures in the jazz field. Her creative ideas, understanding of new trends, track record of discovering and nurturing new talent, and impeccable artistic standards have captured the attention of such seasoned experts as George Wein. Now stepping out as a record producer, Sakairi demonstrates her musical sensibilities and convictions as a philanthropist.

The musical and social camaraderie that Sakairi has so uniquely fostered over the last twelve years at The Jazz Gallery undoubtedly came into play during the recording. The artists donated their time and talents, penning personal songs specifically for this project. All proceeds from HOME – Gift of Music will go to Habitat for Humanity Japan, where volunteers are working tirelessly to rebuild homes for those affected. Studio time, engineering, artwork, graphic design, distribution, marketing and PR services were also generously donated.

“All of the songs were written with very short notice and there was no rehearsal,” says Sakairi. “It’s pretty magical the way everything came together. It was all done in just one or two takes.”

Sakairi’s mentoring skills proved instrumental, pushing artists not only beyond the jazz realm, but for some, out of their comfort zones; most notably with the contribution of the multi-reedist John Ellis, who makes his debut as a vocalist on the pensively assuring title track.

“I just knew he could do it,” says Sakairi, who has commissioned Ellis three times for The Jazz Gallery’s notable commissioning program. “Every time I push him, he rises to the challenge, delivering results above and beyond my expectations. It turned out to be great, exactly as I thought it would.”

In the age of the five-minute attention span, and in a world with no shortage of catastrophes, Sakairi is working hard to remind everyone that, although the tragedy in Japan may not make the front page today, people are still hurting and the road to recovery is long and difficult. HOME – Gift of Music is a testament to the enduring spirit of the people of her native homeland, and to the ability of music to leave an ineradicable impact.

“Action is how we show that we love and we care,” says Sakairi. “Action is the only way to combat helplessness. I took on this task because this is my home.”