Most widely known for his Claudia Quintet, which chucks the usual piano in favor of vibraphone and — why not? — accordion, drummer and composer John Hollenbeck makes jazz do his bidding, pushing it to the borders of new classical and beyond. But for each mold he breaks, he carefully pours a new one, ensuring that his concepts produce fit, ravishing music. He sounds like himself whether slicing time for jazz master Fred Hersch, shaking gourds for experimental vocalist Meredith Monk or, on this Sunnyside album, leading a large ensemble and two special singers into one of his fewer remaining uncharted territories: pop music.
Commissioned and finely performed by the Frankfurt Radio Bigband, Songs I Like a Lot is unconcerned with a consistent definition of pop, as is tipped in the title. The lone straight-acoustic transcription, Imogen Heap’s electro-pop sculpture “Canvas,” is wedged between two extended Jimmy Webb standards. “Wichita Lineman” spins out into dreamily weaving stripes, while “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is undressed down to Gary Versace’s piano before trying on exotic clothes for fourteen minutes. An explosively zany “Bicycle Race” abuts Nobukazu Takemura’s “Falls Lake,” its smooth electronic tones replaced by a quivering jelly of winds and brass. Hollenbeck’s focus is microcosmic, magnifying the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of his compact sources.
Unmoored from the big band’s conventional swinging triplets, Hollenbeck’s drumming is like a dotted line meandering over some fantastical map, and the voices of Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry are at once earthy and alien, like how English folk music might sound to a Martian. Familiar songs rarely sound so strange, and vice-versa.