The Claudia Quintet are criminally under-sung in England, despite being together now for 19 years and eight top-notch albums.
Its line up—a crop of New York Downtown’s finest—has remained remarkably consistent over time: leader John Hollenbeck on drums, double bassist Drew Gress, Chris Speed on reeds, Matt Moran on vibes, and Red Wierenga on accordion substituting for the outgoing Ted Reichman.
Wierenga also plays in a group, The Respect Sextet, with both Christmas- and Sun Ra and Stockhausen-themed albums to its credit, and sometimes (though not here) improvises with self-made electroacoustic interfaces; so there’s something else to check out.
Each new Claudia Quintet album has its theme: the last was conceptually pinned to the month of September, and Super Petite (Cuneiform) is billed as “a collection of shortish works”. Only one of its pieces goes beyond six minutes, and then only to eight for a piece inspired by Senegalese drum master Doudou N’Diaye Jones.
Other tunes also pay homage to Hollenbeck’s influences, with “Nightbreak” being based on Charlie Parker’s solo on “Night in Tunisia” as slowed down to produce a “hypnotic quality”, and “Philly” kicking off with a lick by its dedicatee, drummer Philly Joe Jones.
But not all of the inspirations are so predictable. “Pure Poem” is a very short piece based on concrete/phonetic poet Shigeru Matusi’s “Pure Poem 1007-1103”, a text comprised of sequences of Roman numerals (used by Kenneth Goldsmith to illustrate his theory of “Uncreative Writing”); and “JFK Beagle” and “Newark Beagle” are dedicated to the respective airport’s drug-sniffing-out security dogs.
Why shorter works? “When tunes are longer,” says Hollenbeck, “there tend to be moments when not a whole lot is happening. If you have a really short tune, the whole thing has to be compelling,” by which he does his own back catalogue, where anything under ten minutes is rare, a huge disservice, but makes an admittedly good point.
Moran’s gleaming vibes make a perfect introduction to the starlit gloaming of “Nightbreak”, then play in counterpoint to the melodic warmth of Speed’s clarinet and Wierenga’s accordion and a pliant rhythm. Hypnotic’s not quite right though: the vibe is nocturnal calm but absolutely lucid.
The Beagles are even brighter-eyed, the “JFK Beagle” and “Newark Beagle” bustling brightly about their business to jaunty South African-influenced backbeats, albeit operating in a tight framework. On both pieces a beautifully crisp production reveals details such as the punchy contrabass snaps, doubled by saxophonic plosives, that pop the seams of the leader’s limber rhythm. The “JFK” variation gives more space to Speed’s tenor sax; on “Newark” it’s Moran’s vibes.
Gress is at his fulsome best on tunes like “A-List”, which his free-ranging rhythm solo carries until Hollenbeck’s full kit drumming kicks in, after which it ticks over with briskly thrumming momentum. With this Quintet, despite the perfect individuation of the inputs, it’s the way the ensemble meshes that makes the heart sing.
It’s a jazzer’s dream group, especially, perhaps as “Philly” pays tribute to the bebop tradition with an update of even more fluently complex ideation and expression, though the burred patina of Speed’s tone keeps faith with analogue tradition.
“Peterborough” is brisk and crisp and Minimalism-aware (Reich on a flexible leash), with a terrific interplay of percussions. The Senegalese-inspired “Rose Colored Rhythm” then takes a couple of minutes to edge into its rhythmic groove, which is actually more staccato and just as Western as anything else here, moving through an unexpectedly bolshy and angular phase before lightening up as the group let flow, Hollenbeck in his element.
“If you seek a Fox” is more bushy-tailed briskness, this time exploiting the Francophonic connotations of the accordion for melodic riches. Then comes the compact (01:52) and tightly patterned “Pure Poem”, in all its sequential complexity.
The mid-paced “Mangold” ends the album on a more reflective note, as rhythm makes way for a lucent clarinet and vibraphone duet and a surprisingly sombre collective denouement. This one’s apparently named for Hollenbeck’s favourite restaurant in Graz, Austria, where I’d guess it might only be played in a quiet moment of reflection at the end of a long, lively night.
John Hollenbeck drums and percussion; Red Wierenga accordion; Matt Moran vibraphone; Drew Gress acoustic bass; Chris Speed – clarinet and tenor sax.
Buy Super Petite direct from Cuneiform.