Don’t Let Go
Initially you may think that this chamber music project, Don’t Let Go, is a quiet, pensive, mostly classical music listening experience by judging the first few notes that you hear. If you’re familiar with GRAMMY nominated pianist and composer Mike Holober and his several big band outings, you know there is plenty of jazz in store as well particularly with players the ilk of trumpeter/flugelhornist Marvin Stamm and multi-reedist Dick Oatts. Joining the three of them in this jazz octet are vocalist Jamile, reedist Jason Rigby, trombonist Mark Patterson, bassist Mark McGuirk, and drummer Dennis Mackrel in this double disc project, a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The jazz octet with voice positions the Brazilian vocalist, Jamile, primarily as another lead instrument on the front line although she does sing lyrics on several compositions.
Balancing Act is a wisely chosen name as the program shifts between classical and jazz elements in this live performance, recorded on October 2019 at Aaron Davis Hall on the campus of the City College of New York, where Holober has been an educator since 1995. The 14-part song cycle divides into two sets and is intended to be heard in the order presented, like the song cycles of classicists Robert Schumann, Samuel Barber, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Holober’s work explores the nuances and complexities of the concept of “hope” in our current social, political, and environmental state. Ultimately its musical direction is all about balancing, mixing styles, grooves, and influences from jazz and classical spectrums.
The first major piece is “Morning Hope” which begins in a jazzy mode with Jamile singing lyrics before yield to McGuirk for a bass solo, followed by Stamm and then Holober’s piano. When Jamile re-enters, she does with vocalese, not unlike those Return to Forever albums of yesteryear when Flora Purim did just that. Jamile continues to add texture and color as the octet moves through “Four Letter Words” where she scats and Rigby makes expressive statements, the fiery “Kiss the Ground,” also featuring Oatts on soprano and Mackrel on drums, but especially on “A Summer’s Midnight Dream” where the focus is most directly on her vocalese. In between we have the searching, rather mysterious “Burnin’ Daylight” where she again sings lyrics echoed mostly by Stamm’s flugelhorn. The first set wraps with “Necessary straight-ahead jazz with strong ensemble parts and expressive turns from Rigby and Patterson.
The second set begins in swinging fashion with Jamile singing to the bursts and sturdy horn accompaniment while the rhythm section led by the leader shines in “I Wonder.” The horns lead into the more gently paced “You’re a Long Way from Home” before Patterson and Stamm hold sway with declarative solos as Jamile sits this one out. She comes back for one of her strongest performances in the ballad “You Never Know,” trading lines with Stamm. “Smile Slow” is like an instrumental interlude featuring Oatts and Rigby in a call and response pattern with Holober while Oatt’s soprano cuts through the foggy, sensual bossa-nova “Letting Go,” where Jamile sustains long floating notes over the ensemble and light, but prominent percussion from Mackrel. We’re swinging again with Holober’s piano bouncing through “Touch the Sky” setting the melody that each horn then picks up before Oatts take a feisty turn on alto with his reed partner playing contrapuntally and then alone on the bass clarinet, eventually all taking a turn. Jamile returns for the closing anthem, the optimistic title track, ringing out those joyous last notes as the audience roars in approval.
Just as he’s done with big bands, Holober proves his mettle with a smaller ensemble, giving opportunities for all the musicians to shine and inventively positioning Jamile’s voice to pronounced effect, whether singing lyrics or serving as another frontline instrument.
- Jim Hynes