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«Letters To George»

George is the new quartet led by versatile drummer-composer John Hollenbeck. The incentive to founding this band was the murder of George Floyd. «It was a point where people like me, who thought they were already on a righteous path, realized they were ignorant and de-sensitized to the rampant racism, sexism and injustice that is ingrained in our world. After trying to get over the utter stupidity and anguish that I felt in the aftermath of Floyd’s death», says Hollenbeck, who thinks of George as a tribute band to Floyd. But the word George comes from the Greek name Georgios, which was derived from the Greek word georgos, meaning farmer or earth-worker, itself deriving from the elements γῆ (ge) meaning earth and ergon meaning work. So George is a tribute band to many Georges: George Washington Carver, George Clooney, George Floyd, George Wein, Georgia (the state and the country), Georgia O’Keefe, Saint George, George Saunders, George Michael, George Carlin, George Clinton, George Frideric Handel, George Orwell, Boy George, Curious George and George the magazine.

Hollenbeck formed George with three distinct female musicians in mind, all bandleaders in their own right – sax player-flutist Anna Webber, who hosted him in his Simple Trio and her Large Ensemble as he hosted her in his Large Ensemble and she is the only one who played before with him, New Orleans-based traditional jazz vocalist-sax player-keyboardist Aurora Nealand, who collaborated before with Chris Speed, Ethan Iverson and Tim Berne, and futurist synth pop vocalist-keyboardist-pianist Chiquita Magic, who fascinated Hollenbeck with her Instagram daily clips during Covid-19 lockdowns. The debut album of George, Letters to George, was recorded at Planet Studios in Montreal in January 2022. It was the first time the quartet set foot in the same room.

As you can probably guess by now, George is not a typical Jazz band. Hollenbeck insisted on notation-free compositions, so all four musicians would have their own unpredictable relationship with the music, with a clear and strong belief that the sum is greater than its parts. The music overflows with restless ideas and features full-on extended jazz solos but enjoys an energy of a rock group, twists and turns touching on synth-pop and synth-bass-drums groove of a futurist funk band. The opening piece «Earthworker» demonstrates the elusive aesthetics of George with its cyclist pulse, similar to the seasonal routines of a farmer. «Clinton», dedicated to funk maestro George Clinton, suggests a tight drum-saxes funky improvisation. The cover of Sonny Bono’s and Cher hit song «Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)» imagines a Paul Motian free arrangement of this pop song, with Webber Magic free improvising on this melody.

«Washington Carver» is dedicated to the pioneer scientist, environmentalist and inventor of crop rotation, and its polyrhythmic grooves and melody introduce a kind of cerebral dance vibe. «O’Keefe» imagines a mournful, emotional plateau with a feel of the modernist painter, but the following «Can You Imagine This?» kicks George into its most experimental free form. «Saunders», after the short stories writer, was inspired by the author’s generous letter writing and conjures the mystical-to-lucid evolution often present in Saunders’ writing.

«Floyd». A clear, unsettling reaction to the murder of George Floyd serves as a wake-up call and realization of just how ingrained and structural racism truly is in society. This piece was performed once for the studio recording, and George claims that it will never be played again. «Grey Funnel Line», by British traditional singer-songwriter Cyril Tawney, highlights the soulful delivery of Nealand telling about an old sailor song about leaving home, something many musicians can identify with. The last piece, «Iceman» is dedicated to Basketball legend George Gervin, the Basketball Hall of Fame legend and borrows the game’s fast-paced tempo to its uplifting groove for exercising or dance.

A promising debut album, weird and beautiful that demands more follow-ups.

Eyal Hareuveni

Anna Webber (ts, fl), Aurora Nealand (v, as, ss, keys), Chiquita Magic (keys, v, p), John Hollenbeck (dr, p)

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