Although John Hollenbeck’s versatility as a drummer and composer has led him to pursue a wide range of projects over the years, it’s his work with The Claudia Quintet which arguably is the best vehicle for his idiosyncratic style. With this ensemble, he’s got the perfect mix of instrumental textures, technical expertise and devil-may-care flexibility needed to pull off these ten tricky, yet undeniably fun, pieces. The result is a superbly enjoyable and addictive record, a release sure to end up on a lot of “best-of” lists for the year.
With the exception of accordionist Red Wierenga, who replaced Ted Reichman for its 2013 release September, the rest of the personnel have remained unchanged since the band’s inception in 2001: Matt Moran (vibes), Chris Speed (tenor sax and clarinet), and Drew Gress (bass). This is essential to the success of the music, as Hollenbeck’s vision seems particularly driven by the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Each of these musicians is an outstanding contributor in his own right, but Hollenbeck requires them to subordinate their individual offerings to his unique compositions, which have always been the centerpiece of the group’s music.
Okay, so how do the compositions stack up? Really well, unsurprisingly. Take “Nightbreak,” for instance, the delicate opening track, which features a beautiful melody from Moran and the perfect support from Wierenga and Speed, and as the track gradually becomes more intricate the initial feeling of wonder and mystery remains, even as Hollenbeck and Gress take on a more prominent role and the rhythm emerges more fully. There’s also plenty of the Claudia Quintet’s stylistically adventurous trademarks: the rock-influenced pieces, like the infectious “JFK Beagle,” animated by some especially spirited playing from Speed, or the propulsive “A-List,”with insistent chords from Wierenga fueling the beat; the intricate pyrotechnics of “Philly,” a fast post-bop extravaganza; or the danceable groove of “Rose-Colored Rhythm,” built upon a figure from Senegalese drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose that practically dares you to sit still while hearing it.
At just over 45 minutes, the record is noteworthy for the relative brevity of the tracks, something Hollenbeck has endeavored to hone over the years, as he argues that “when tunes are longer, there tend to be moments when not a whole lot is happening.” One certainly can’t say that about these pieces, where there simply aren’t any wasted notes: it all counts. And while that sometimes can be a bit disappointing, as you could easily imagine the group stretching out and continuing the groove (witness “Rose-Colored Rhythm” in particular), there’s an easy solution to this problem. Just play the record again. And again.