From ‘Wichita Lineman’ to ‘Bicycle Race’: Hollenbeck ensemble to premiere new CD
A fanfare of low reed instruments opens an arrangement of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow,” from composer and percussionist John Hollenbeck’s recording “Songs I Like A Lot” (scheduled for a January release). A guitarist plays a rhythmic beat, then vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry sing the tune, which many listeners recognize from the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Many performances of this song have a mournful quality, but Hollenbeck’s arrangement transforms it into a joyous dance piece, while keeping the original melody recognizable. He gives listeners a different take on a wide variety of tunes on this release – from Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” to Freddie Mercury’s “Bicycle Race” to Imogen Heap’s “Canvas” and other songs.
Vocalists Bleckmann and McGarry will join Hollenbeck and his Large Ensemble for a performance marking the release of “Songs I Like A Lot” Saturday at Reynolds Theater at Duke University.
The album, in addition to Hollenbeck, also credits McGarry and Bleckmann, along with pianist Gary Versace and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. McGarry, who lives in Durham, previously worked with Hollenbeck, who played drums on Fred Hersch’s recording of music based on Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” McGarry was a vocalist on that release. Bleckmann also has worked with Hollenbeck in a duo, and in Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet.
McGarry said Hollenbeck wanted to write music that would put his stamp on familiar songs. “He just started writing these arrangements that blew my mind,” McGarry said in a phone interview. Hollenbeck asked both vocalists for “a list of songs we had grown up with that we wanted to have re-done,” McGarry said. McGarry chose “Bicycle Race.” In a phone interview from Berlin, Hollenbeck said McGarry suggested some songs by Imogen Heap, and he heard “Canvas” and picked it for the CD. “Wichita Lineman” was a song his father liked, and that Hollenbeck heard often while growing up. Bleckmann played him a recording of a Norwegian singer doing Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” and he decided to record it. Other songs were recorded at the sessions and will appear on a later collection, Hollenbeck said.
At 14 minutes and 34 seconds, “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” is the longest piece on this record. It represents one of the many strengths of this collection: The tunes are familiar, but Hollenbeck, who conducted and arranged all the tunes, gave himself and his musicians plenty of room to stretch.
“Once you have something, you can revise it or change it, which is an important part of the process,” Hollenbeck said of these arrangements. “Basically you’re living with the music in your head … and you’re using your imagination and trying to work it out little by little on paper,” he said. “They’re all different,” he said of the songs, “and I wanted them to all be different, so I worked on them in different ways.”
About “Constant Sorrow,” Hollenbeck said many folk and blues songs may have lyrics that express sadness, and yet the instruments and rhythms can be danceable, or uplifting. That transformation was probably what he was seeking in this arrangement, he said.
On “Bicycle Race,” Hollenbeck uses a bicycle as a percussion instrument, a device he also has used in collaborations with Meredith Monk. On many of these tunes, Hollenbeck plays mallet instruments and conducts, and the bicycle “was my one little solo,” he said.
McGarry and Bleckmann also are song arrangers in their own right. When she interprets a song, McGarry said she never sings a “cover” of the original, but sings the tune the way she hears it, in an organic way.
Working on “Songs I Like A Lot” was a different process for her, because her singing had to fit Hollenbeck’s concept of the song. “I enjoyed being a side person for once,” McGarry said. Singing with the large ensemble and with passages for both voices also “stretched my range a lot, but in ways that really pleased me. This is one of my favorite recordings of myself,” she said.