Anna Webber tenor saxophone/flute
Aurora Nealand voice/alto saxophone/soprano saxophone/keyboards
Chiquita Magic keyboards/voice/piano
John Hollenbeck drums/piano/composition
Letters to George (OOYH 018), due out January 27, 2023, is the debut recording of drummer/composer/bandleader-extraordinaire John Hollenbeck and his brand new band GEORGE, featuring Anna Webber, Aurora Nealand, and Chiquita Magic. Pre-GEORGE Hollenbeck had two main creative outlets for his composing and drumming (both still active to varying degrees): The Claudia Quintet, his long-standing band featuring Chris Speed, Drew Gress, Matt Moran, and Red Wierenga, has been redefining jazz for the last 25 years. And the GRAMMY-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, a 19-piece big band assembled in 2005, whose lineup reads as a who’s-who of modern creative jazz (notable members are Theo Bleckmann, Matt Mitchell, Patricia Brennan, Tony Malaby, Anna Webber, to name just a few). So a new band, and the first one in 17-years, is kind of a big deal for Hollenbeck, and for jazz fans across the world. On a personal note, this is a very special album for me (Adam Hopkins) to have as part of the OOYH Records catalog. John has been a bit of a mentor to me since subbing for Drew Gress in the Claudia Quintet on a 2017 tour, when I saw firsthand what an incredible band leader he is, as well as his complete devotion to this music. I can say without hesitation that there is not a single element of this recording, or this new band, that does not receive the utmost attention to detail or careful consideration from John.
Hollenbeck formed GEORGE with three specific musicians in mind, all whom he admired and wanted to play with, but none of who knew each other well before they remotely recorded PROOF OF CONCEPT in March 2021. This track was essentially a test to see how the band sounded, and how they worked together (spoiler: it worked). The recording session for Letters to George took place in Montreal in January of 2022. It was the first time the quartet even set foot in the same room, and they immediately coalesced into what was very obviously going to be John Hollenbeck’s next trailblazing band. All four members of GEORGE are skilled improvisers without a doubt, but they come together from three different corners of the music world; Hollenbeck and Webber are very much a part of the same orbit from the Brooklyn creative music scene (they are the only two members of GEORGE with a prior musical history), Nealand is at the forefront of the revival of New Orleans Traditional Jazz, and Chiquita Magic’s solo releases are described as futuristic pop using microtonal synths, voice, and drum machines. The fruits of this exceptional combination of musicians proves Hollenbeck to be part of an esteemed lineage of jazz bandleaders, think Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis, who write for specific musical personalities to express their singular vision. To me, GEORGE draws more than a few parallels to the second great Miles Davis Quintet (Claudia being the “first”). The sum is greater than the parts, but the parts (all bandleaders in their own right) each have a unique voice that shines brightly as part of the ensemble, and GEORGE is overflowing with the distinct musical personalities of each of its four members.
That all being said, calling GEORGE a jazz band misses the mark a bit. For starters, if you see GEORGE perform live you’ll notice that no one is reading music, a very conscious decision by Hollenbeck. On that, he says “The idea when I was writing was that [the compositions] could be taught without needing any notation, which greatly affects all different parts of the pieces. I know some people in the band don’t really even know what time signature [each piece] is written in. They have their own relationship to the music. So, that’s kinda cool. I love that.” When I saw GEORGE in Richmond on their first tour in March 2022, they presented the music very much as a rock band would, but with twists and turns touching on synth-pop, full-on extended jazz solos, super tight synth-bass/drum grooves, and anything else that might be a part of any one band member’s distinctive background. Is it jazz? Sure, but it is a whole lot of other things as well. What is important is that this music is new, it is futuristic, it will make you think but also make you dance, and it is a band that we can only hope will be making music together for the next 17-25 years. Letters to George is just the beginning for GEORGE.
Letters To George acts as a token of appreciation to a few Georges. Track descriptions by John Hollenbeck:
Earthworker: The name George comes from the Greek word for farmer, or more specifically “earthworker.” The low guttural rumble of the opening synth bass line has an earthy feel, and the cyclical nature of the piece is similar to the seasonal routines of a farmer.
Clinton: Dedicated to the quirky, tuneful, funk-master, the unpredictable George Clinton. A drum/sax improvisation suddenly becomes a pop-funk tune!
Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down): Paul Motian meets Sonny Bono. This was a spontaneous piece in the studio. Aurora sang the melody and John accompanied, but Anna and Chiquita did not know what they were playing and treated it like an improvisation.
Washington Carver: Dedicated to pioneering scientist, environmentalist, educator, inventor of crop rotation, who published over a hundred recipes using peanuts, and so much more. The polyrhythmic grooves and melodies give this tune a sciency vibe. Geek out and dance!
O’Keefe: A mournful plateau that suggests the feel of some of O’Keefe’s work.
Can You Imagine This?: This was GEORGE’s remote test piece. The synth part is written, and everyone else is given a lot of freedom to spontaneously compose. Aurora improvised the lyric “can you imagine this,” which became the title.
Saunders: The title of this record comes from a podcast called Letter To George about one person’s correspondence with George Saunders. Around the same time I was listening to this podcast, a friend got a letter from George Saunders and I got to read it. It was simply beautiful and compassionate. I love his writing, but did not expect him to be so generous or such a great letter-writer. The piece conjures the mystical-to-lucid evolution often present in George Saunders’ writing.
Floyd: The inception of this band was a reaction to the murder of George Floyd, and the resulting wakeup call and realization of just how ingrained and structural racism truly is in society. The piece was performed once for the studio recording, and will never be played again.
Grey Funnel Line: A haunting feature for Aurora, that really showcases her soulful voice. An emotional acoustic-ambient arrangement of an old sailor song about leaving home (something many musicians know something about).
Iceman: Dedicated to George Gervin, the Basketball Hall of Fame legend. The fast-paced tempo in basketball is translated to this tune. A fun groove for exercising, moving, and dancing!
“Hear the mesmerizing first track from ‘Letters to George,’…
The group combines strategies from experimental jazz, ambient electronics, chamber music and more — with myriad elements converging on ‘Earthworker,’ which neatly sets Nealand’s wordless soprano against Webber’s flute.
Elsewhere on Letters to George, the group moves into different sonic dimensions, even venturing a spooked-out cover of Sonny Bono’s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),’ best known for hit versions by Cher and Nancy Sinatra. The album’s gratis track on Bandcamp is a nightmare vision titled ‘Can You Imagine This?’ — opening with a scream, and thrashing forward in a coordinated blur.”
– Nate Chinen, WRTI 90.1