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Hear the mesmerizing first track from 'Letters to George,' by John Hollenbeck's new group GEORGE

GEORGE
Evan Shay
/

Musical taxonomy has never squared with the art of John Hollenbeck, a drummer, composer and bandleader with an elegant way of scrambling signals.

These days he's well known as an orchestrator — for his eponymous Large Ensemble as well as the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, with which he made his most recent album, Songs You Like a Lot. His other flagship, the Claudia Quintet, has been a beacon of creative fluidity on the contemporary jazz landscape for more than 25 years. Meanwhile, Hollenbeck continues a longstanding collaborative allegiance with composer and choreographer Meredith Monk, who turned 80 this fall.

So what led Hollenbeck to form GEORGE, his latest working band? One answer to that rhetorical can be found in the opening track of its full-length debut, Letters to George, due out on Out Of Your Head Records on Jan. 27. WRTI is proud to premiere that track, "Earthworker," in advance of its release this Friday.

Hollenbeck formed GEORGE as a cooperative, seeking out the specific creative potential of three maverick improvisers: Aurora Nealand on vocals and alto and soprano saxes, Anna Webber on flute and tenor sax, and Chiquita Magic on keyboards and vocals.

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. "The name George comes from the Greek word for farmer, or more specifically 'earthworker,'" explains Hollenbeck in a statement. "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."

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.

It so happens that "Can You Imagine This?" originated as a test case for Hollenbeck — a remotely recorded collaboration that he ultimately posted in the spring of 2021 under the hopeful title "Proof of Concept." That was enough to secure support for a tour this past spring: GEORGE played an Ars Nova Workshop show, and also at Big Ears.

Letters to George was recorded over two days in January, in Montreal; when the four musicians convened in the studio, it was their first time sharing space in the same room. But they quickly found common ground — thanks in part to Hollenbeck's compositions for the band. "The idea when I was writing was that they could be taught without needing any notation, which greatly affects all different parts of the pieces," he says. "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."

Letters to George is due out on Jan. 27 on Out Of Your Head Records; preorder here.