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), released 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.]