Imaginative, unique, acoustic jazz from one of New York City’s most respected pianists and composers. For his debut as a leader, Mike Holober fronts an all-star quintet that features some of the finest players in contemporary jazz. Merging influences such as Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Evans, Holober adds his fresh sensibility to a recording inspired by the strength and open space of the outdoors.
01 Canyon (8:12)
02 Ansel’s Easel (6:58)
03 Heart of the Matter (8:47)
04 Same Time, Same Place (8:11)
05 Roc and a Soft Place (8:19)
06 Spin (5:55)
07 In So Many Words (5:16)
08 You and the Night and the Music (7:05)
09 Stardust (4:39)
Mike HOLOBER, piano
Wolfgang MUTHSPIEL, guitar
Scott COLLEY, bass
Brian BLADE, drums
Tim RIES, saxophones
Fred HERSCH, producer
Nothing. It’s really about nothing, when you think about it. A canyon. What is it? A hole. A big hole. A big nothing produced by the constant friction between nature’s most powerful elements: water, wind and earth. A canyon is defined by empty space; by nothingness. Perceiving the remains of the rubbing and scrubbing, we marvel at what remains; but the nothingness makes it what it is.
Michelangelo conceived the figures he sculpted as being imprisoned in the blocks of stone with which he worked. By removing the excess stone, the forms were released. Similarly, Nature, as sculptress, uses the chisels of water and wind to release the stunning form of a canyon. But unlike Michelangelo, she’s never quite finished. A canyon is one of Nature’s great works-in-progress.
Writing in 1902, the great naturalist John Muir described the Grand Canyon as “a gigantic sunken landscape of the wildest, most multitudinous features.” He went on to extol “the side canyons, gorges, alcoves, cloisters, and amphitheaters of vast sweep and depth carved in its magnificent walls; the throng of great architectural rocks it contains resembling castles, cathedrals, temples, and palaces, towered and spired and painted, some of them nearly a mile high…”
Mike Holober knows something about canyons, too. Besides being a great musician he is an avid hiker and climber, and over the years he has experienced first-hand many of the natural wonders that have inspired so many writers, painters, photographers, and musicians. For this CD, his first as a leader, Mike has drawn on impressions from these experiences and combined them with his varied and vast musical experience. Using his formidable abilities as composer, pianist, and leader he has forged these sources into a strong, individual statement.
His compositions have a wonderfully lyric quality to them. Each is a short story, with shifting textures and feels. As a pianist he is very much in control of his instrument, and his playing always has a strongly melodic character. In his role as bandleader, Mike has picked his players with care. He calls saxophonist Tim Ries “my oldest New York jazz friend, my first choice for everything.” Tim shines on both tenor and soprano. Mike met guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel when both were teaching at a summer workshop in Austria. He rightly says Wolfgang “adds a refreshing ingredient” to the band’s chemistry and sound. Mike first teamed up with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade on a recording led by saxophonist Dave Pietro. He immediately knew that he’d want to have them on his own album. Both players have been very active on the world jazz scene as sidemen, and Brian leads Brotherhood, which showcases his own formidable composing talents.
The CD opens with the title tune, written after a winter trip to Utah’s Rock Creek Canyon. Form is important to Mike, and the piece unfolds with effortless shifts of groove, rising and falling in a very natural way. The musical landscape changes much in the way a natural landscape changes color and texture as the sun arcs across the sky.
Mike has visited many places that appear in the photographs of Ansel Adams. These vistas were the inspiration for "Ansel’s Easel." Fueled by the quiet intensity of Brian brushwork, the tune builds through solos by Scott, Mike, and Tim, fading on the tune’s hook.
The entire quintet features on “Heart of the Matter.” Notable throughout the entire album is Wolfgang’s shifting role in the ensemble. At times paired with the saxophone, at times with the piano or bass, and other times used an independent voice, he adds special character to the group.
With "Same Place Same Time" Mike reaches the “rapids” of the trek through the canyon. Mike has a rule that the harder the tune’s head is to play, the more open the solo form should be. After the quintet burns through the opening statement, the form opens up for Wolfgang’s guitar solo. To thicken the plot, Mike introduces both Tim’s soprano solo and his own piano solo with short a capella piano statements.
"Roc and a Soft Place" is dedicated to the late saxophonist and bandleader Joe Roccisano. Its dark, introspective atmosphere offers a strong contrast to the previous track. This darkness is then dissipated by the up-tempo 3/4 of "Spin." Especially noteworthy here is the piano/drum interlude in Mike’s solo.
"In So Many Words" is, as Mike says, “the ballad of the set.” This tune is dedicated to the late baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola. Having played with Nick a lot myself in the ‘70’s, I know that he would love this tune. It’s a beautiful vehicle for both Tim and Mike.
The album ends with a couple of standards. At first hearing I felt like I had run into a couple of old friends after many years’ separation. They looked different, but deep down inside were the same old pals. “You and the Night and the Music” has a restructured melody chorus and is nice and loose throughout. “Stardust” may owe just a little bit to Ahmad Jamal, with its vamp and spread-out feeling, but it also has Mike’s own wide-open, spacious feel about it. He wisely retained the verse in this long-form, one-chorus rendering. The group fades over the vamp, and so ends the CD.
I’ll second Fred Hersch’s sentiments expressed elsewhere in this booklet by saying that it’s about time Mike Holober released an album of his own music! He is one of New York’s best-kept secrets. I’ve long admired his playing and his writing and am happy to see him finally getting his music out to a larger audience. He is also a terrific composer/arranger for big band and orchestra, and we can only hope that some of that music will appear on disc, too. Mike is off to a great start with Canyon. We can now experience “the side canyons, gorges, alcoves, cloisters, and amphitheaters” he and his worthy colleagues have discovered for us. Enjoy the journey.
— Jim McNeely