The Claudia Quintet is an ensemble that goes by its own set of rules. With its slightly weird combination of vibes, accordion, sax, double-bass and drums, and songs that don't follow the script of how songs go (but avoids skronkery and dissonance), the five piece band is an anomaly of an anomaly. It all comes for the deviously clever composing mind of its drummer and leader, John Hollenbeck. Drummers from Art Blakey to Matt Wilson have led some strong ensembles in the history of jazz, but even among the more experimental ones like Bobby Previte can't even come close to the advanced and highly attenuated music of John Hollenbeck's cerebral little group.
Since recording together in 2001, the Claudia Quintet has been one of several outlets for Hollenbeck's composing abilities. He's studied composition under Bob Brookmeyer in '94 received grants to study further. He's won numerous awards recognizing his composing prowess, and also won kudos for his drumming and his large ensemble. He finally begun making records in 2001, putting out his first three featuring three different ensembles with three different kinds of jazz at practically the same time, thus revealing right off the extent of his musical range. It's impressive.
Equally impressive are the personnel Hollenbeck assembled for the Claudia Quintet. Ted Reichman is, like Andrea Parkins, one of the rare accordion player specializing in improvised music, but he got hired by Anthony Braxton while still a teenager and went on to play on eight of Braxton's records. Vibraphonist Matt Moran has recorded for everybody from Lionel Hampton to William Parker to Sufjan Stevens. He also leads a brass band called Slavic Soul Party!. Chris Speed has applied his saxophone skills to bands led by John Zorn, Tim Berne, Jim Black, Dave Douglas and Uri Caine. Drew Gress is one of the most in-demand acoustic bassists around, and a fine composer in his own right, as we discovered in reviewing his album The Irrational Numbers.
For their fifth album released last May 18, Hollenbeck brings in a sixth member, frequent collaborator and pianist Gary Versace. Versace is the same guy we lauded for being such a damned good organ player in John Ellis' Double-Wide ensemble. The addition brought a subtle change in their sound, one that allowed Hollenbeck to step back behind the tonal instruments and concentrate further on layering rhythmic patterns for his intricate songs. If you ever heard the prior Claudia albums, you can be relieved (or disappointed, depending on your point of view) that Versace doesn't disturb the chemistry one whit.
All this space devoted on Hollenbeck's composition prowess is key to understanding how this band sounds; the band sounds like it does because it's largely scripted that way from the leader's pen. Melodies stay in place or they might lurch from one spot to another on the other side of the musical room, but it's by design. You won't heer a lot of scorching solos, but you do hear solos that are unhurried and deliberate. That plays into the strengths of these players, especially Speed and Gress. It's one of those records you call jazz" simply because you don't know what else to call it, although avant-garde chamber jazz" comes closer.
I'm convinced that Hollenbeck loves to catch listeners off guard, and the opening ambient piece Crane Merit" would not have been the way I'd expect him to open an album with. It's very straightforward and plodding by Hollenbeck's standards. Following that is the first of a half dozen brief interludes. Keramag Prelude" is performed by Hollenbeck only, who plays out the main riff from Keramag" on his drums. Keramag" itself highlights the inherent advantage Hollenbeck has a composing drummer: he can weave a compelling groove into complicated strains.
Those other interludes are reprieves from the highly structured nature of Hollenbeck's compositions, as they are all solo improvised pieces performed solo by each of the remaining five participants. Moreover, they are recorded playing duets with themselves. Hollenbeck got the idea after the fact to combine two of improvised segments from each player not knowing in advance how it'd turn out, but the results sound as if they were reacting to themselves (even though they had no idea that was what they were doing at the time they played these).
Of the rest of the pieces, the title track Royal Toast" is the most intriguing. It's multi-sectional without segues, with Hollenbeck and Moran acting as co-conspirators on some mind-blowing multi-rhythms even in 4/4 time, and the meter shifting over to 10/4 in one section. Even so, it's a head-nodding, toe-tapping vibe all the way through. This is one instance where Speed cuts loose on a solo, but remaining closely tied to the scaling and descending sequence of notes. Versace's intelligent improvisations are made more astounding when you notice the rhythms keeps fluctuating beneath him. One could spend a whole day dissecting this song alone, but the remaining nine fully formed songs have their own puzzles to solve, too.
It's a given that a Claudia Quintet record is one that stands apart from other whack jazz records, and Royal Toast continues their tradition of not following tradition.