John Hollenbeck and George: Letters To George

Tribute inspired by George Floyd includes saxophone and other improvisations over abstract chord sequences and rock and fusion beats


I have false memories of seeing John Hollenbeck with George Russell’s Living Time Orchestra in the mid-90s. It was actually his brother Pat, but everything the younger sibling has done in his career – from the intelligent eclecticism of the Claudia Quintet to his recent excursion into post-rock ambient with Bernhard Meyer – would place him in those elevated circles.

Hollenbeck’s latest project – known simply as George – originally took its impetus from the very public death of George Floyd. Covid-19 also played its part in bringing this outrageously gifted set of individuals together from very different points on the creative music spectrum. Although they’d already collaborated remotely, it’s remarkable to think that this gripping January 2022 recording was the first time they’d been together in the same room.

Floyd is just one of the Georges to receive a dedication on Letters To George, but his is by some distance the most powerful of the set. Dark synth lines carry echoes of John Carpenter’s dystopian soundtracks, and each time the line “my heart hurts” is spoken it seems to resonate more deeply. Hollenbeck insists this will be the piece’s only performance, and it’s hard to imagine a more perfect encapsulation of the collective outrage.

Elsewhere, the remaining pieces are hardly any less remarkable, the glossy synth-pop veneers barely concealing the complexity of the writing or the space each player is given to improvise. Nealand’s Weillian vocals on Sonny & Cher’s Bang Bang are truly inspired, while Webber blows free and hard on the dedication to P-Funk legend George Clinton. The chamber-ish O’Keefe paints a sorrowful scene, while the uptempo Iceman (for basketball legend George Gervin) could even move listeners to dance.

Music like this may well be the future of jazz, though I’m sure musical omnivore Hollenbeck would defiantly reject such a narrow classification.

Earthworker; Clinton; Big Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down); Washington Carver; O’Keefe; Can You Imagine This?; Saunders; Floyd; Grey Funnel Line; Iceman (49.14)
Hollenbeck (d, p) with Anna Webber (ts, f); Aurora Nealand (as, ss, kyb, v); Chiquita Magic (p, kyb, v). Montréal, 26-28 January 2022.
Out Of Your Head Records OOYH 018