Click here to [close]

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

GEORGE - Letters to George (Out of Your Head Records, 2023)

By Lee Rice Epstein

In late 2021, drummer John Hollenbeck put online what he then called PROOF OF CONCEPT—a quartet with Hollenbeck, Anna Webber, Chiquitamagic, and Aurora Nealand—with the description, “This piece was remotely recorded as a way to say, ‘We can do this and it will be awesome!’” I happened to catch GEORGE live this spring, and awesome is an understatement.

Letters To George opens with “Earthworker,” which calls back (purposely or not) to Jim Black’s first AlasNoAxis album. Hollenbeck’s brisk beat and Chiquitamagic’s bass synth kick off with a dazzling, funky groove. The band locks in with Nealand and Webber joining on melody, and everything cruises from there. The compositions display all the layering and interwoven elements of Hollenbeck’s other projects, showing how well he can pivot from big band arrangements to small groups, retaining the components that still mark these as Hollenbeckian—Hollenbeckesque?

Towards the end of GEORGE’s odes to Georges comes “Floyd,” a deep, mournful tribute to George Floyd. Hollenbeck opens with a powerfully evocative (there are no other words for it) drum solo, leading to Webber’s keening saxophone. The words “my heart hurt” are repeated by different voices, different intonations, a sentiment that cuts deep. It’s like a thesis statement, a reminder that fun and funky can also be serious and bold.

If there’s a post-pandemic message to be heard here, it’s in the effortlessness of the quartet’s collaboration. Webber and Nealand brilliantly play off each other on the ping-pong melody of “Clinton.” Over the sliding rhythm of “Washington Carver,” Webber’s flute takes center stage, but she’s buttressed by Nealand and Chiquitamagic’s rich synths. Letters To George closes with the brilliant “Iceman,” which seems to channel John Adams with its perpetual motion design. There’s a fantastic video for this one that leans into the bright-colored aesthetic that flows through the music. Dogs, ice cream, jumping jacks, boxing, yoga, air sax, like the songs themselves, the players are in constant flux throughout, handing off props and smiling and laughing together. In fact, when I saw them here in L.A., the band set up in a line, where they could all see each other clearly, and again there were smiles all around. That underscored how GEORGE functions as a collaborative effort and a fundamentally Hollenbeckish message that we’re all in this together.