Bandleader, drummer and composer John Hollenbeck has been able to keep his Claudia Quintet viable long after its original formation in the late 90s by continually tossing new challenges at it. For 2010’s Royal Toast, for example, he inserted pianist Gary Versace into the mix of Hollenbeck’s drums, Drew Gress’ acoustic bass, Chris Speed’s woodwinds, Matt Moran’s vibes and Ted Reichman’s accordion. The next album What Is The Beautiful supplemented the five piece band with two of the current top male jazz vocalists, Kurt Elling (who recited poetry) and Theo Blackmann (who sang).
September returns the band back to a true quintet, but Hollenbeck made changes in other ways. Red Wierenga is the accordion player, now, and original bassist Gress is replaced by frequent fill-in Chris Tordini for four of these ten tracks, signaling a change of the guard at that position, too. But the other test Hollenbeck administered this time was to introduce his already-knotted, tightly wound compositions to the group not through documentation but mostly by ear. Most bands would probably fall flat on their asses trying to digest Hollenbeck’s elaborate tunes without the help of sheet music, but not the Claudia Quintet. They might have loosened up a bit (which might be what Hollenbeck was aiming for) but there isn’t a hint of sloppiness anywhere to be found on this album.
These songs, by the way, are held together by all referencing certain days in September, a month that will always resonate in a special way to New York resident Hollenbeck. “September 12th Coping Song” was the original tune written, about the immediately aftermath of 9/11. A solemn ostinato maintained by Gress as Wierenga, Speed and Moran carefully venture out from it but this is a somber mood piece. Much later, Hollenbeck worked to complement this piece with songs about other days of the month “in the hope of trying to rework and transform the traumatic residue through composition.”
Hollenbeck’s usual genius is very much present as well. He devises not just complex rhythms but threads of rhythms interwoven together. The first two tracks, “September 20th Soterius Lakshmi” and “September 9th Wayne Phases” exemplify that. For “September 24thInterval Dig” he comes up with inventive beats, interwoven with the harmony impossibly tight. Ironically this is his most straightforward song, and yet there’s little conventional about it.
Tordini fills in Gress’ big shoes more than adequately. He enhances the peaceful “September 22nd Love Is Its Own Entity” with a lovely sounding bass. For “Wayne Phases” he plays his bass in a percussive role, subtly evolving it to a true bass role.
The other new guy is no slouch, either. Wierenga has a saxophonist mentality when soloing and when paired with Speed’s clarinet, as on “September 25th Somber Blanket,” his accordion takes on the stately resonance of a cathedral organ.
“September 29th 1936 ‘Me Warn You'” stands as the most amazing performance on September. On the prior album, the band played around Elling’s recitals, but here, they are responding to sampled and looped snippets of a speech by Franklin Roosevelt. From the recorded words of FDR springs forth the melodic elements, and even his cadence and his inflections form a basis for composition and give cues to the soloists. At many points they are playing along in lock step with FDR’s utterances. It’s a real revelation in that Hollenbeck’s songs often do sound like this, resembling human speech in their flow.
Proving that special guests aren’t needed to make The Claudia Quintet special, September continues their ability to amaze in new ways. When both composing and musicianship are always at the highest level, it’s hard not to.
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September drops on September 24, courtesy of Cuneiform Records. Visit the Claudia Quintet’s website for more info.
Here are The Claudia Quintet’s fall tour dates:
Oct 2 BucknellU – Lewisburg, PA
Oct 3 (le) poisson rouge – New York, NY
Oct 4 Firehouse 12 – NewHaven, CT
Oct 5 Lewis & Clark College – Portland, OR
Oct 6 Cornish College of the Arts – Seattle, WA
Oct 7 Willamette University – Salem, OR
Oct 8 Arcata Playhouse – Arcata, CA
Oct 9 Bows & Arrows – Sacramento, CA
Oct 10 Kuumbwa Jazz – SantaCruz, CA
Oct 11 REDCAT – Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (part of 2013 Angel City Jazz Festival) – Los Angeles, CA