The Claudia Quintet is a jazz group with a seriously hybrid ancestry — the group combines the shimmering clarity of the George Shearing Quintet with the ADHD adventurousness of John Zorn, the structured dorkiness of a string quartet with the shrieking madness of Albert Ayler. The Claudia Quintet, led by drummer John Hollenbeck, is one of the most exciting groups in contemporary jazz, but it can also be one of the most tedious. Let the creative tension sit in graceful equipoise.
For is the latest of three discs on Cuneiform in the last four years — a significant body of work from the same five guys: leader, composer, and drummer John Hollenbeck, Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor sax, Matt Moran on vibes, accordionist Ted Reichman, and Drew Gress on acoustic bass. The shimmer of the Shearing group comes through in the clean blend of vibes, accordion, and clarinet, but the creative bustle of Zorn emerges in the busy, almost mathematical compositions and structured improvising environments. Each of the discs comes at you with the force of a manifesto: this band knows exactly what it is about, and the compositions charge forward with inevitability.
Hollenbeck’s compositions are both surprising and logical. Like much of the new downtown jazz, Claudia’s music uses the liberties of “free jazz” in the context of extremely ordered writing. The order, however, is new. Songs rarely consist of easily remembered melodies in 12 or 32 bars; instead they are evolving patterns that take your ear on a journey. The solos are not just “blowing” over the tunes changes, but are improvised elements of the larger design.
On “August 5th, 2006”, for example, Gress’s bass solo takes place on top of (or, really, beneath) a winding pattern of lines played by the other musicians (with Hollenbeck on xylophone). In fact, the solo appears to be written rather than improvised, even though there is a jazzy tone to its articulation. Listening to song like this, you don’t anticipate the return of the theme at all — you simply keep following the whole piece as it unfolds like the plot of a short story. There is no real repetition, but rather the playing out of a series of motifs across almost ten minutes of fascination.
This is not to say that there are not moments of more unreserved wailing. On “Be Happy”, Speed gets to unleash a fairly knotty tenor solo that takes great advantage of his background playing fast music in the Eastern European style. His tone can get wooly or rough, but the articulation is precise — and it’s all arrayed over an accompaniment that sounds as much like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as it does like jazz. When Gress follows this with a sliding-note statement that could be from a Mingus record, the background shifts to an eerie, otherworldly blend of clarinet and accordion.
That all this orchestration comes from the pen of a drummer should not be surprising. After all, drummers are musicians who regularly deal with more than one instrument under their own command (toms, cymbals, cowbells, and so on), and Hollenbeck controls his kit with grace and excitement. “Rug Boy” starts with a pure “out” drum solo, which is then fused with an accordion statement during which Reichman channels Cecil Taylor. As Speed and Gress join in a written part, Moran solos with abandon. Again: it’s almost like a kind of chamber music that emerges from a free jazz sensibility.
There is a precious tedium to be found here as well. Most plainly, there is “For You 6:14”, on which the band plays a series of ambient atmospheres beneath the recitation of a series of words: “fear”, “breathe”, “you”, “you”, “you”. I guess it’s “performance art”, and I guess I should be giving it a break and trying harder to dig its profundity, but who’s got the time when so many other tunes are full of fun and interest? The same might be said of “Three Odes”, with its long, Reichian introduction of pulses and presence, all of which seems to be leading somewhere important…only to never quite arrive.
These dull patches, however, are more than made up for by Hollenbeck’s puckish play elsewhere. Most clever and most fun, surely, is “Rainy Days/Peanut Vendor”, which is — I swear on my mother — a brilliant conjoining of the song by the Carpenters (“Rainy days and Sundays always get me down”) and the classic Cuban rumba. You barely recognize either melody until you utterly recognize them and can’t stop thinking about it. Speed runs a lovely clarinet solo over a short progression from “Rainy Days”, and it all seems inevitable when the main motif of that melody is — of course! — set over a Cuban groove.
Which is as good a word for the music of the Claudia Quintet as any. Though this combination of instruments and this blend of styles are hardly obvious, the band now sounds so thoroughly integrated and seamless that you’d think it was a tenor-trumpet quintet or a 16-piece big band. You can almost imagine other clarinet/vibes/accordion groups springing up in its wake. Yet how many would have jazz soloists as imposing and inventive as Speed and Gress, or a composer as fiendish, playful, and patient as Hollenbeck?
Few. Or, actually, none. Though I encourage folks to give it a go. The Claudia Quintet, inimitable, deserves to inspire.