Work vs. play. Sharing vs. keeping. Dreams vs. realities. And so on. Pianist Mike Holober says we all have acts to balance. Expressing his personal take on this concept, he presents Balancing Act (Palmetto Records, 2015).

Performing with Holober are Kate McGarry, voice; Marvin Stamm, trumpet and flugelhorn; Dick Oatts, alto and soprano sax, flute; Jason Rigby, tenor sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Mark Patterson, trombone; John Hebert, bass; and Brian Blade, drums.

McGarry’s whispery scat opens the tranquil “Book of Sighs.” When the musicians join in, she sings Holober’s lyrics with bass and piano responding to her calls. After a few verses, she cedes to the instruments. Oatts is first to delight the ear with a riveting, blistering tour on the alto sax, punctuated by Blade’s dexterity on the kit. As Oatts continues, Patterson joins in with overlapping lines. Stamm and Rigby add fills. Then subtly, Oatts steps back and hands the reigns to Patterson. McGarry signals a transition to the main theme with a wordless chant that matches the phrase played by Holober and Hebert. It’s an engaging piece that has many textures and moods.

“Grace at Sea,” one of the longer songs in the set is aptly named. Lyrically, McGarry sings of a ship that lacks the standard tools for navigation, perhaps lost on the open ocean. Musically, one can almost hear the wind and the waves in how the instruments are played. McGarry’s wordless chants are as haunting as her singing. Patterson delivers a throaty middle solo. Later in the song, Rigby cranks up the tenor, indicating a passage where the unnamed vessel encounters stormy seas. The tempest passes, and the vessel drifts again.
Balancing Act is Holober’s first release in six years. His five original songs are the confluence of his appreciation for physical and emotional landscapes, and for nature. Rigby contributed one track, “Idris.” There are also two covers: Billy Joel’s “Lullaby: Goodnight My Angel”; and “Piece of My Heart,” by Jerry Ragavoy and Burt Burns.

For the past four years, Holober has served as associate guest conductor of HR Big Band Frankfurt in Germany, writing and conducting projects for Miguel Zenon, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jane Monheit and a Frank Zappa program from the Frankfurt Jazz Festival. Holober has also served as conductor of the WDR Big Band Cologne. A Brooklyn native who grew up on Long Island, Holober studied piano, flute and saxophone before heading to State University of New York at Oneonta for a bachelor’s degree, and Binghamton University for his master’s in classical piano.