The Claudia Quintet with Gary Versace – Royal Toast – Cuneiform 307, 69:22
(John Hollenbeck – drums, percussion, producer; Ted Reichman – accordion; Chris Speed – clarinet, tenor saxophone; Matt Moran – vibraphone; Drew Gress – acoustic bass; Gary Versace – accordion on track 16, piano)
Royal Toast, the fifth release by drummer/composer John Hollenbeck and The Claudia Quintet, shuns chaos, raucous noise or abrupt gyrations even though the six musicians often create experimentally-inclined chamber jazz. Hollenbeck’s expert music tends to sneak up on the cerebellum with quiet intricacy. Over 70 minutes The Claudia Quintet offers a cool complexity that snakes in and out of Hollenbeck’s stately compositions.
Anyone who has spent time experiencing The Claudia Quintet is already aware of the group’s skillful collaborative nature. Hollenbeck, accordionist Ted Reichman, clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and acoustic bassist Drew Gress share a well-developed telepathy that avoids long solos and instead relies on close-knit communication. Guest pianist Gary Versace – who also adds accordion on one cut – has previously joined the band on stage and brings subtle shadings to the heady material.
Hollenbeck favors percussive elements on his arrangements, which effectively advance subdued moments with suggestive grooves and other times gives his music an adventurous rhythmic surge. Two excellent examples of The Claudia Quintet’s ability to move both brain and body are found on “Keramag” and “Paterna Terra.” The first number showcases the group’s unique use of an accordion, vibraphone and clarinet front line that conveys coloring to the elaborate harmonies while Hollenbeck furnishes a restless rhythm that deftly swings with a modernist edge. Versace’s dense piano chords also abet the piece’s underlying propulsive drive. “Paterna Terra” commences with Speed’s oblique tenor sax, unusual post-rock electronics and Hollenbeck’s unbound percussion that together climb up an asymmetric inclination. From there things gradually escalate to a tumultuous conclusion.
The most rhythmically detailed statement, however, is the fast-flowing “Sphinx,” which cites both Arabic and African influences and builds an exotic auditory landscape that curves and shifts with unobstructed verve. The bass and drums leap and lunge (Gress is particularly adept during his up-front moments); Speed demonstrates his lightning-quick reflexes on clarinet; and Moran maintains the track’s animated demeanor with his cadenced vibes.
The closest the quintet gets to straightforward jazz is during two so-called standards. The elegiac “Ideal Standard” is a memorable ballad that balances a requiem-esque measure with a sophisticated fragility highlighted by Speed’s elegant sax. That is followed by the boldly varied and urgent “American Standard,” a multifaceted mingling of jazz and modern creative music part Zappa and part Mingus.
Sprinkled throughout are improvised solo duets that Hollenbeck surreptitiously recorded and edited that feature band members on multi-tracked overdubs forming singular musical monologues. The short self-conversations act as interludes or introductions to several numbers and contribute a sense of continuity and thematic equilibrium.
The recording and production are as exceptional as the music. Reichman’s accordion and Speed’s clarinet are both contrasted but also mixed with technical brilliance while Moran’s vibes frequently are placed just underneath other instruments in order to engender a translucent polish to arrangements. Fitting Hollenbeck’s percussive preference, the instruments are also usually organized to emphasize rhythmic depth.
1. Crane Merit
2. Keramag Prelude
4. Paterna Terra
5. Ted versus Ted
6. Armitage Shanks
7. Drew with Drew
9. Matt on Matt
11. Chris and Chris
12. Royal Toast
13. “Ideal” Intro
14. “Ideal Standard”
15. American Standard
16. For Frederick Franck
— Doug Simpson