The Claudia Quintet – Super Petite – Cuneiform

by | Sep 12, 2016 | Jazz CD Reviews

The Claudia Quartet shares musical sketches from life incorporating travel, song, news, movies and more.

The Claudia Quintet – Super Petite [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform, Rune 427, 47:21 [6/24/16] ****:

(John Hollenbeck – drums, percussion; Red Wierenga – accordion; Matt Moran – vibraphone; Drew Gress – acoustic bass; Chris Speed – clarinet/tenor saxophone)

Some writers prefer the conciseness and tight structure of short stories to the length of novels. There’s a nebulousness to characters and pensive situations where the reader has to fill in some details. One of Raymond Carver’s short story collections was called Short Cuts, and that’s an apt analogy to drummer/composer John Hollenbeck’s 47-minute Super Petite, the eighth release with his long-standing Claudia Quintet. Whereas some jazz artists gravitate to making albums or musical projects prolonged and larger, Hollenbeck took the opposite approach and focused on penning shorter compositions (although one piece on Super Petite is over eight minutes). Hollenbeck states in his liner notes, “Many of these compositions came from studies or ideas that I wanted to practice or explore—and through further exploration, they organically evolved into musical portraits or musical shorts.”

Hollenbeck’s work has been and continues to be modernistic, and spans contemporary jazz and other genres. Hollenbeck’s influences are wide-spread. During Super Petite, he’s inspired by classic jazz, airport travel, cable news programs, movie award shows and more. Despite disparate stimuli, everything is tied together by Hollenbeck and his ensemble, which includes accordionist Red Wierenga, vibraphonist Matt Moran, acoustic bassist Drew Gress and Chris Speed (clarinet and tenor saxophone).

The group commences with the six-minute “Nightbreak,” which is based on Charlie Parker’s alto saxophone solo break in “Night in Tunisia.” Hollenbeck explains, “When I slowed it down, I discovered a hypnotic quality that gave me a mood to work with.” Most listeners may have difficultly connecting the softly-progressing “Nightbreak” to a fast-paced bop piece.  Moran’s introductory and sparkling vibraphone sets the tone, followed by Speed’s shimmered clarinet and Wierenga’s accordion. There’s a slightly vaporous viewpoint accentuated by Hollenbeck’s subtle percussion, where he emphasizes his brushes, and also by Gress’ spry bass lines.

Another jazz performer prompted the quickly striding “Philly.” The five-minute tune was written as homage to drummer Philly Joe Jones (who was part of the Miles Davis Quintet from 1955 to 1958; and was allied with pianist Bill Evans). The asymmetrical number is grounded on one of Jones’ drum licks, which Hollenbeck alludes to at the tune’s start. “Philly” has an animated adventurousness pushed by Gress’ sprinting bass line, Speed’s trotting tenor, and Wierenga and Moran’s revolving rhythmic perspective. Like “Nightbreak” there is a disconcerting demeanor. This could be the background soundtrack to a bar scene where a fight may be ready to begin: one wrong word and barstools could be tossed. While Hollenbeck’s percussive precision is strong throughout this album, there is a spicy stimulation to his drumming on “Philly” which evokes Jones.

Canines are the characters who flit through the record’s briefest pieces, both under 3:30 in length. “JFK Beagle” and “Newark Beagle” were kindled by contraband-sniffing security dogs which Hollenbeck spotted during his journeys to and from gigs. As Hollenbeck says, “they are the living embodiment of [the album title]. Utterly adorable but all business.” While “JFK Beagle” may or may not accurately delineate the real pooch, the cut does contain some of the tenseness of airport security measures. Wierenga’s accordion has a dose of discordance as he tosses in a constantly repetitive percussive stab. At the same time, Speed supplies a tautly probing tone on his clarinet. If illegal transport needs a cinematic sound, the Claudia Quintet has created it with “JFK Beagle.” Reiteration is also a compositional tool during “Newark Beagle.” The vibes and drums maintain an echoing, rising musical figure. The accordion helps expand the tune’s investigating inclination, and Gress and Hollenbeck craft an almost militant or march-like beat during the first two minutes. After that, the rest of “Newark Beagle” has a more playful property, with less edginess.

While Hollenbeck probably wasn’t contemplating filmic potentials as he shaped his music, Hollywood did impact “A-List,” which Hollenbeck avows “is the theme song for an imaginary video featuring the Claudia Quartet strutting down the red carpet.” Tongue firmly in place, he affirms “think Entourage meets the Geek Squad].” “A-List” is a compelling musical statement. It’s too skittish to be an award show theme, especially with some off-balance harmonic elements. “A-List” is a good example of how Hollenbeck can arrange outwardly contrasting musical portions into a musical continuity. Physical locations also affected other tunes. “Peterborough” was composed in the New Hampshire town where Hollenbeck was a resident artist at the MacDowell Colony (a New England artists’ colony founded in the early 1900s). Aaron Copland was also a one-time colony visitor (that’s where Copland conceived his “Appalachian Spring”), and there is a hint of Copland’s American-hued confidence throughout this upbeat, buoyant piece, which begins wistful and then turns bouncy and concludes with entertaining aplomb which some might consider akin to Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon music. The Claudia Quintet ends with the moody “Mangold,” so-called after Mangolds, Hollenbeck’s favorite Austrian vegetarian restaurant. Here, Hollenbeck and his band slow down several notches as they play through an unhurried, drifting melody. Super Petite is like savoring a long and lingering feast. There is much to enjoy, concentrate on, uncover and sample. The ten tracks each offer a morsel, and the full repast is oh so delicious.

TrackList: Nightbreak; JFK Beagle; A-List; Philly; Peterborough; Rose-Colored Rhythm; If You Seek a Fox; Pure Poem; Newark Beagle; Mangold.

—Doug Simpson

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