John Hollenbeck continues his string of fine large-ensemble outings with the 2015 Sunnyside album Songs We Like a Lot, following up Songs I Like a Lot, released in 2013 on the same label. Again mainly featuring Hollenbeck arrangements of favorite songs penned by others, the album also includes two compositions he wrote, "Constant Conversation" and "The Snow Is Deep on the Ground," the former with words by 13th century Persian poet and mystic Rumi and the latter -- first heard on the 2011 Claudia Quintet album What Is the Beautiful? -- with words by poet Kenneth Patchen. And like the initial Songs collection, the music here is performed by the Frankfurt Radio Bigband with singers Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry; Uri Caine is also featured on piano and organ. Hollenbeck has a keen ear for creating gorgeous music with unique timbral palettes, as in Claudia Quintet's combination of drums, vibraphone, reeds, accordion, and bass, and this album -- like his other big-band endeavors -- presents similarly attractive sonic variety across a more sweeping canvas. With its opening moments of shimmering vibes, piano, and clarinet, leadoff track "How Can I Keep from Singing," a 19th century hymn written by Robert Wadsworth Lowry with later lyric contributions from Pete Seeger and Doris Plenn, indeed begins in Claudia-esque territory, but over the course of its nine-plus minutes -- noteworthy for McGarry's spirited, Celtic-tinged vocal, Caine's subtly sanctified piano, Bleckmann's lovely wordless melodiousness, and a smoothly soulful tenor saxophone feature for Steffen Weber -- builds from minimalist instrumental counterpoint into a brass fanfare-laden crescendo that conveys thrilling exultance.
As for the two aforementioned original compositions, "Constant Conversation" features Middle Eastern thematic motifs, rhythms, and drones surrounding McGarry's spoken delivery of Rumi's words, illustrating Hollenbeck's truly expansive definition of "song"; while "The Snow Is Deep on the Ground" is the album's most explicit example of how Hollenbeck can turn the Frankfurt Radio Bigband into the Claudia Quintet writ large, with this new roomy arrangement -- including rhapsodic piano from Caine -- creating a soundscape that ably matches the wintry setting of Patchen's poem. Elsewhere, Hollenbeck finds the art in pop, from Bacharach/David and the 5th Dimension to Cyndi Lauper and Daft Punk. If "True Colors" was good enough for Miles, it's good enough for Hollenbeck, although his fragmentation and reconfiguration of the tune seems designed to create the greatest possible distance from Miles' (and any other) previous version; the tumultuously tumbling arrangement of Daft Punk/Pharrell Williams' mega-hit "Get Lucky," complete with "computer-generated voice in Russian," is a brief oddball diversion; and "Close to You" is sparkling and sophisticated, with surprising drama and one of McGarry's most disarming vocal performances. Finally, there's no disguising the catchy tune and brassy ebullience of "Up Up and Away," and self-aware avant jazz hipsters may be irritated that Hollenbeck ends the program with this 5th Dimension fave, as the earworm is planted in their heads and they can't shake it in spite of themselves.