The Claudia Quintet: I, Claudia

The Claudia Quintet
I, Claudia

A blurb says this group’s inspiration is “electronica”, which at least affords one lead in trying to say what this quintet sounds like: a drummer, a vibist / percussionist, a clarinetist / saxophonist, a bassist, and an accordionist. They open with the drummer (John Hollenbeck, also the composer) sustaining an almost rock-mechanical beat, with which the vibes make free, while the squeezebox is applied to generate some ethereal sounds. It recurs to these after having its own little time as lead. It’s further allowed some unaccustomed dramatic atmospherics before the vibes enter, with a strong jazzman playing bass. The vibes come near to a jazz solo before the accordion completes the ensemble and they jam to a close.

“Opening” is the second track (Duke Ellington had an item called “The Opener” which usually turned up as the final one before the half-time interval). This thing is a play of textures very much on an electronic or Philip Glass model, and one does get the impression that this is really a composer’s band, like the Michael Nyman Band in England.

My favourite may be “Arabic”, opening with the clarinet, which continues over a sort of Chinese chimes entry. The squeezebox’s entry to the accompaniment is a reminder that the bass has been working away all the time. It’s a decent tour-de-force for clarinet, and, after some wilder vibes playing, the squeezebox synthesizes synthesizer sounds of an engine sort. The clarinet resumes and produces a nice diminuendo.

“The Cloud of Unknowing” is titled after a very well known German mystical text and has already appeared and been recorded as a composition commissioned for the Bamberg Symphony Chorus. Bamberg is a modest-sized German town unique in having been spared wartime bombing, and in having a major Symphony Orchestra disproportionate with the size of its hometown, to which it was relocated after 1945, having previously been the German orchestra in Prague. This was a sizeable commission! The composer has also won a jazz award.

Here, the accordion enters in very elderly, thready, not quavery little old church organ dress, with the piping sound of one old organ sound made by the clarinetist, and the vibes — as near as can be managed on vibes — join in with another ancient organ voices. The bass gets into the act, and there’s a sort of inverted Wurlitzer effect, or rather pre-Wurlitzer, ancient organs having begun to try to emulate little orchestras. Something dreamy or hypnotic keeps coming to the fore in Claudia Quartet performances. With the establishment of a distinctive drum rhythm, the vibist moves into something of a jazz solo. The bass is fairly forceful, and presumably these musicians could do a good job as jazz sidemen. The music isn’t, however, jazz, or necessarily all that jazz-influenced or jazz-like. It’s more a case of extremely well developed jazz techniques being turned to ends of contemporary modern classical music. Perhaps Claudia is really a composer’s instrument, an odd ad hoc sort of assembly, who might be previewing music that will subsequently have a different, more conventional orchestration. Regardless, it is a group of players each very much concerned with the expressive and tonal capacities of his specific instrument.

The clarinetist, having essayed what is really a different European style — that rather owes debts to jazz practice than goes in for it — opens “Adowa” playing, I think, a tenor saxophone, but in the guise of a bassoonist. He works through a steady figure, with variations in intonation involving the occasional shifted note or grace note and modulations between keys. All the time, the vibes, bass, and drums are working powerfully behind it. It’s an exercise in building tension by playing what is really always the one figure, for all that the pace, phrasing, and key keep changing. The squeezebox takes over, disguised as a harmonium and accompanied by some very powerful drumming. The vibes quote some phrases in jazz language, and the beautifully played saxophone appears as itself, but still on at the repeated figure game.

The strong rhythmic component of the music brings to mind the African drum ensemble, and the approach to melody is minimalist. In fact, as the music becomes more familiar its basis in the short, finite, even end-stopped phrase becomes plain. There’s no shortage of ideas other than of melody or linear development. “… Can You Get through This Life with a Good Heart?” opens with a remarkable simulation of the sound of a much larger ensemble. This is followed by a succession of instrumental entries, short and hung in the air with silence or a pause between each. Even the musicians seem to be wondering what effect these separated phrases might add up to. The silence is eased out by some background noises, very quiet and very strange, which seem to have some purpose of connecting or contextualising the separate phrases — which the bassist’s flurries appear to be trying to do with more resolve. The effect is of chilly atmospherics, and playing phrases that stop and are separated by silence (in general or only on the specific player’s part) does establish a feeling of detachment. The bass and drums move in the direction of a jazz accompaniment behind a shifting but cumulative development of orchestral texture.

There is also a tendency to defy likely expectations. For instance, following the simulacrum of modal jazz — vibes over drums, then a saxophone entry — which begins “Misty Hymen”, the squeezebox plays away in the background like a less warm-toned melodica, but the front line musicians persist with a practice of short, meticulously shaped, not staccato but stopped phrases. Anything that is played is deliberately shaped as a phrase with a beginning and an end, to which any short middle is secondary. It’s all lapidary, stone after stone shaped or encountered in a circular movement. A radiant monotony seems to be one intention, the musicians all seriously accomplished. Chris Speed is certainly a master of the saxophone, Rueben Radding a splendid bassist, and Matt Moran a vibist nobody would mind having in a jazz ensemble. Ted Reichmann’s accordion is at the very least versatile. I like the breathy saxophone over a drone produced by the vibist on “Couch”. It concludes with valedictory sounds from the sometime participants, floating a distinct if ethereal phrase, and then another ethereal valedictory phrase, almost like a very slow fade or disappearance — but signalled by the extension of space between sounds rather than a quietening. The conclusion is silence, and it is possible that — although I put the CD in its jewel-case more than a day before rewriting this review — that silence might be playing still, long after you’ve logged off reading pages on the PopMatters site. The music sounds uncommonly stylized, at most straddling a line between music qua music and the use of musical elements in ceremony or meditation. I’m not sure how often I’d want to listen to this CD, but it is certainly an interesting, very musical surprise.