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I, Claudia

by The Claudia Quintet

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Opening 06:40
"arabic" 08:23
Misty Hymen 05:45
couch 09:01


The 2nd release by this sensational 'jazz and beyond' ensemble. Their music, while clearly influenced by the jazz idiom, goes far beyond jazz, and many parts of this record have more in common with musicians such as L'Ensemble Raye, Hamster Theatre, Nimal, Von Zamla and others. This album demonstrates that "Innovative jazz does not have to be harsh, angry, loud, shrill or grating; it can be delicate, witty, ethereal and radiantly lyric, as the Claudia Quintet pointed out..." [Chicago Tribune]. Formed by composer/drummer John Hollenbeck in 1997, this NY ensemble creates music that explores the edge in a manner that captivates and enthralls novice listeners, and keeps experienced fans returning for more. I, Claudia is a highly seductive work, ripe with compelling, propulsive grooves, dynamic sensitivity, catchy melodies and telepathic improvisation. Remarkably accessible, its music can perhaps be called postjazz. As the NY Times stated recently: "...if the music were a little bit dumber, it would resemble the music of the rock band Tortoise. No disrespect to Tortoise." In addition to Hollenbeck, the band features four other versatile and acclaimed players drawn from the huge pool of talent in New York: Drew Gress (double bass), Matt Moran (vibraphone), Ted Reichman (accordion) and Chris Speed (tenor sax and clarinet).

As part of the ignored-in-the-US, but-praised-abroad New York downtown scene, the Claudia Quintet is not your average band of late night trance jammers. At clubs like the Living Room and Knitting Factory, these adventurous musicians are pushing the edge of what jazz is, remaking the "is" part with influences taken from Frank Zappa, Steve Gadd, Astor Piazzolla and what sounds like Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown theme music. Playful and exotic, moody and dark, I, Claudia will excite those ready for jazz beyond major label narrow-mindedness, but may lose even the faithful when their muse turns to surreal noodling and atonal changes. At its peak I, Claudia is exhilarating as in "Opening", where a head bobbing (or is that shoulder jerking) rhythm is massaged smooth by accordion and clarinet. Equally entertaining, "Misty Hymen" follows a maze of drums and vibraphone spiraling like the mad chase scene to a Czech spy thriller.

A gifted drummer with a lucid style and a spicy sound whose compositions draw on everything from chamber jazz to funk to the avant classical of Steve Reich, John Hollenbeck leads the group through this dreamy drone world. That the Quintet spends as much time brooding over sleepy sounds as slipping and sliding over Hollenbeck's elastically sharp groove makes for a thick stew of the unexpected. With Drew Guess on bass, Matt Moran on vibes, Chris Speed on horns and Ted Reichman on accordion, the Claudia Quintet make serious heavy mental.
Ken Micallef

Composer John Hollenbeck is also a drummer. So you expect propulsion, and on his latest Claudia Quintet release you get plenty of drive and rush. But his force is mostly about vibe and the simpatico relationship between the odd instrumentation assembled for the date.

John Hollenbeck has worked with the likes of Cuong Vu, David Krakauer, Pablo Ziegler, and the Village Vanguard Orchestra. His signature music has been crafted in collaborations with Theo Bleckmann, Meredith Monk, and Bob Brookmeyer. He is a drummer who considers himself to be a lyrical player. In fact he "plays" toys, tins and tubes besides his drum kit.

I, Claudia follows up the Claudia Quintet's self-titled debut release and repeats the magic of that 2001 session. This unique band includes accordion (Ted Reichman), vibraphone (Matt Moran), clarinet/saxophone (Chris Speed), and bass (Drew Gress).

Hollenbeck's compositions are beyond jazz, inching up on chamber music but informed by ethnic, rock, and modern composition as well. "Opening", with Gress tapping his bow on his strings, could easily have been a power piece by Radiohead. That is until Hollenbeck pauses and begins blowing into a tube. The propulsion is re-ignited with Chris Speed's simple clarinet line. "Arabic" opens like a Steve Reich repetition piece, vibes and percussion looping steps under Speed's clarinet figure. It evolves (or devolves) into a wild ride of improvisation and eventual reflection of simple accordion, vibe, triangle, and bass.

Hollenbeck's music is all about reflection: the simple note, breath and gesture. Both "The Cloud Of Unknowing" and "Couch" show how simple separation of notes and musicians speak louder than the volume of combined playing. Hollenbeck lays such a casual groove he lets your mind fill the gaps with imagination. In fact, the toy static raised on ì...Can You Get Through This Life With A Good Heart?î leaves you adrift in thought before the band brings you home in a funky rhythm.

As John Cleese would say during Monty Python's Flying Circus, ì...and now for something completely different!î ...a band with the hippest groove in music today.
Mark Corroto for allaboutjazz.com

The appeal of the Claudia Quintet's second CD comes in the sonorities conjured by drummer/composer John Hollenbeck: the deep woody tones of Chris Speed's clarinet against the wheezing delicacy of Ted Reichman's accordion and Matt Moran's vibes. The opening "Just Like Him" sets up the template: Hollenbeck's motoric drum -n- bass patter of snare, kick, and hi-hat, then Speed's slow-moving, long-toned line, then a spare vibes line set against the clarinet, then yet another line, like spaced channel markers ó big black things ó in the transparent current, from bassist Drew Gress. It isn't until a full minute into the six-and-a-half minute piece that Reichman offers that first aromatic wheez of harmony. It goes along like that, melodic counterlines weaving around each other in a kind of contrary motion. Then there's a pause at the four-minute mark that leaves clarinet and accordion see-sawing on a dissonant interval before the whole thing starts up again, this time with Gress the first to leap in after Hollenbeck's drums.

Those cyclical rhythms contribute to the music's seductiveness, as they do in minimalists like Glass and Reich. (The stuttering out-of-sync rhythmic-melodic figure of "Opening" even suggests the Cure's "Close to You.") But, again like Glass and Reich, those "process" rhythms can drive you nuts. There is some relief in some beautiful out-of-tempo passages, but every once in a while you might wish the band would just give in to their jazz side, play a straight walking four, and blow. And on "Misty Hymen," the most frantic, out-there, and jazz-like of the pieces, Speed does get off a ripping tenor solo.
Jon Garelick for the Phoenix

The Claudia Quintet's I, Claudia is one of the best of the albums of the slowly blossoming New Year. Post-rock is sort of a silly term (it thrice froze up the ordinarily very helpful All Music Guide when I tried to search for it), but we're kind of stuck with it to describe the neatly mechanical minimalism-informed instrumental jazz-rock (or is it the instrumental jazz-informed rock minimalism?) of bands like Tortoise and TransAm, whose musicians grind with perfectly repeated precision. The Claudia Quintet, led by percussionist John Hollenbeck, fall into that category, too.

Everything about their presentation is crisply ordered. There is virtually no reverb or distortion on I, Claudia (and, where there is, it is impeccably subtle). The rhythms behind their songs are imbued with a succinct clarity. There is no chaos in them, though there is complexity. Hollenbeck is a percussionist, and The Claudia Quintet is driven by the delicate pairing of his drums and Matt Moran's vibraphone. In combination, the two frequently sound like a spasmodic wind-up toy. Like Tortoise, the Claudias use the vibraphone to bridge the gap between melody and rhythm. But where Tortoise use melody to accent strong rhythms, The Claudia Quintet use rhythms to accent churning melodies.

The Claudia Quintet swings, Hollenbeck leaning into the grooves to give them momentum, and The Claudia Quintet breathes. Literally. It's amazing how much humanity two air-driven instruments - Chris Speed's clarinet and Ted Reichman's accordion - lend the band. It is this latter quality that makes The Claudia Quintet special on songs like "Opening" which pulse steadily via Hollenbeck, but inhale and exhale easily from Speed and Reichman. Many of the tunes - such as the aforementioned "Opening" - alternate between fast rhythmic excursions and droning minimalism.

"Opening" begins with several prelude-like swells, which are soon joined by bassist Drew Gress's, then Hollenbeck's, quick 'n' steady tock, which itself resolves into a darting beat to begin the song proper. Just as quickly, though, the piece breaks back down into blobs of color, Reichman's accordion rapidly opening and closing its bellows. It is during ambient breakdowns like these - and there is one in nearly every song - that the instruments are allowed to establish their identities, their characters. Letting loose with long, slow eruptions on one tone, the ear is allowed - almost unconsciously - to pick up the subtle variations in the instruments' voices. When they return to dexterous playing, as they inevitably do, they don't sound like machines at all, no matter how fast they go (and they get pretty fast; check out the dazzling polyrhythms of the Frank Zappa-like "Misty Hymen.") One is capable of picking out the masterful alterations in tone. What at first seemed virtuosic becomes emotional -- at least somewhat.

I, Claudia is delightfully challenging. It is neither quaint nor cute, but it isn't overbearing either. Likewise, despite its overt complexities, it is never a difficult listen. Like the gorgeously modernistic green-on-white abstractions of the liner notes, the music shapes itself on the canvas with an alluring simplicity. It is neither the past, present, nor future of anything. It is a statement that exists boldly for itself - hey, its confidence is there in its own name, I, Claudia - and stands proud.
Jesse Jarnow

John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet gives off a slinkier, mistier feeling than Mr. Charlap's trio. That's mostly a function of instrumentation, which tends here toward the mellower end of the spectrum. Vibraphone and xylophone (Matt Moran), accordion (Ted Reichman) and clarinet (Chris Speed) play principal roles, and the parts of the band shift around like tectonic plates. In a typical chunk of the group's new album, "I, Claudia" , an ostinato figure on the vibraphone gradually gives way to clarinet and accordion; there's a sliding-off into kind of sound-soup, and then a redeveloped version of the vamp begins again.

Nobody promised you this would be jazz; it just happens that most of the musicians in the band have their training in that area, so you get the vestigial feeling of jazz from the tone of Drew Gress's acoustic bass, Mr. Moran's occasional harmonic improvisations in a given rhythm and Mr. Hollenbeck's use of brushes.

Instead of swing, the pulse tends toward the even, hammering one of baroque, Eastern European folk dance, Philip Glass and drum-and-bass. But sometimes it's slow funk. And sometimes there's no pulse at all. A track called "Can You Get Through This Life With a Good Heart?" begins with discrete chord clouds, a little bit after the style of Morton Feldman, joined together by some sort of buttery radio-transmitter static.

Whatever it is, Mr. Hollenbeck has gotten at a special group sound, and he's such a sensitive, technically deft drummer ó you notice the steadiness of his timekeeping right away ó that his music can just be what he wants it to be; it's curious, and sometimes lightly funny without sour, satiric edges. It doesn't need alignments with jazz or rock or anything else to vindicate itself.
Ben Ratliff for the The New York Times

Whether in a supporting role or as a leader, John Hollenbeck's method of jazz drumming is unequal parts exactitude, and wit, enhanced by a polyrhythmic composure. However, he supplants these attributes with a spunky and rather spirited compositionally minded disposition. On this truly wonderful outing, the drummer's cleverly performed grooves provide a clearly definable spark for the soloists' various maneuvers. On the opener ìJust Like Him, Hollenbeck and bassist Drew Grass lay down a perky ostinato motif. Here, Chris Speed's lilting clarinet lines and Matt Moran's soft vibes offer flotation-like qualities as the band subtly shifts the pulse amid airy dreamscapes.
Ted Reichman's oscillating accordion work on the piece titled "Opening",tenders a semblance of an electronic element, whereas the band often conjures up an aura, befitting children at play. The musicians' inject charm and wit into these cyclically generated works. It's like clockwork! As a portion of these semi-structured themes ring up notions of ethereal vistas and cautiously enacted sojourns. Ultimately, Hollenbeck's lighthearted compositional style suggests a trance-like state that moves through an aggregation of linearly devised ebbs and flows. However, the one constant during this production is how the music proceeds in such a delicate, and largely inauspicious manner. One of the year's very best! (Feverishly recommended)
Glenn Astarita for jazzreview.com

A few years ago percussionist/composer John Hollenbeck seemed to spring from nowhere to release a spate of discs for CRI: No Images, Quartet Lucy and The Claudia Quintet, after which his working band is now named. This sophomore release builds on the strengths of its predecessor with the same richly varied instrumental lineup ñ vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordionist Ted Reichman, tenor/clarinet player Chris Speed, and bassist Drew Gress, in addition to the leader. The music itself still works the furrow between "downtown" improvising, post-rock propulsion, and New Music minimalism (in the Glass/Reich sense). The minimalist influence is no joke, and Hollenbeck has even performed with Meredith Monk. But it certainly doesn't constrain the relaxed enthusiasm of these intricately woven pieces, in which Hollenbeck is as likely to join the vibraphone on his marimba as he is to kick out the jams.

Quirky polymeters and syncopations abound, and though Hollenbeck likes to bring the funk, there's plenty to stimulate the olí noggin here as well. His composer's knack for structure generally leads him to set up ear-catching ideas, "accessible"in other words but which reveal considerable nuance during performance. Hollenbeck and Gress create an ever-changing rhythmic polymorphousness, shifting accents, playing with phrasing, and gleefully reshaping the general bounce. Speed, Moran, and/or Reichman perform dense counterlines amid a forest of textural and atmospheric effects.

"Opening" epitomizes Hollenbeck's accessible abnormalities. The album's second song has a kind of clipped, almost digital effect that recalls electronica (specifically Fennesz during its washed out ambient passages). Sure, solos happen (and I happen to like Chris Speed's playing here more than on anything else I've heard from him; his clarinet work is excellent), but they're so deeply embedded in the fabric of the compositions that you could forgiven for thinking they're written out (and hey, Anthony Braxton used to do that).

In general the feel is fairly consonant, although there are the occasional dark tendrils and jabbing harmonies. Only the glacial, Morton Feldman-like silences of the flatlined penultimate track ìMisty Hymen prove an exception to the general compositional method. There are all kinds of details throughout the disc ñ most generated by the leader, who may blow through a plastic tube or dabble in radio static ñ that reveal themselves on repeated listens. Taken as a whole, I, Claudia isn't one of those rock-your-world records. But at the same time, it's rare to find a band that can actually strike a balance between cerebral challenge and relaxed accessibility.
Jason Bivins for dusted magazine

On the Claudia Quintet's 2nd latest, I claudia drummer and bandleader JH incorporates James Brown-influenced "Funky Drummer" backbeats and invigorating 2nd-line grooves into the fabric of his not-easily-categorizable compositions. Is it ambient? Is it avant-garde? Is it mimimalist? Is it Downtown? What the hell is it?

Hollenbeck's got such downtown ringers as bassist DG, CS, TR and MM on board, so it's a safe bet that this provocative material will not have precious value above 14th Street in NYC-or virtually anywhere else in America, though they'll no doubt eat it up in Europe. Granted, Hollenbeck is an adventurous new-music composer and conceptualist who follows the courage of his convictions. But jazz fans looking for
anything remotely swinging may want to bypass this heady-post Steve Reich stuff.
Bill Milkowski for Jazz Times

A blurb says this group's inspiration is "electronica", which at least affords one lead in trying to say what this quintet sounds like: a drummer, a vibist / percussionist, a clarinetist / saxophonist, a bassist, and an accordionist. They open with the drummer (John Hollenbeck, also the composer) sustaining an almost rock-mechanical beat, with which the vibes make free, while the squeezebox is applied to generate some ethereal sounds. It recurs to these after having its own little time as lead. It's further allowed some unaccustomed dramatic atmospherics before the vibes enter, with a strong jazzman playing bass. The vibes come near to a jazz solo before the accordion completes the ensemble and they jam to a close.

"Opening" is the second track (Duke Ellington had an item called "The Opener" which usually turned up as the final one before the half-time interval). This thing is a play of textures very much on an electronic or Philip Glass model, and one does get the impression that this is really a composer's band, like the Michael Nyman Band in England.

My favourite may be "Arabic", opening with the clarinet, which continues over a sort of Chinese chimes entry. The squeezebox's entry to the accompaniment is a reminder that the bass has been working away all the time. It's a decent tour-de-force for clarinet, and, after some wilder vibes playing, the squeezebox synthesizes synthesizer sounds of an engine sort. The clarinet resumes and produces a nice diminuendo.

"The Cloud of Unknowing" is titled after a very well known German mystical text and has already appeared and been recorded as a composition commissioned for the Bamberg Symphony Chorus. Bamberg is a modest-sized German town unique in having been spared wartime bombing, and in having a major Symphony Orchestra disproportionate with the size of its hometown, to which it was relocated after 1945, having previously been the German orchestra in Prague. This was a sizeable commission! The composer has also won a jazz award.

Here, the accordion enters in very elderly, thready, not quavery little old church organ dress, with the piping sound of one old organ sound made by the clarinetist, and the vibes -- as near as can be managed on vibes -- join in with another ancient organ voices. The bass gets into the act, and there's a sort of inverted Wurlitzer effect, or rather pre-Wurlitzer, ancient organs having begun to try to emulate little orchestras. Something dreamy or hypnotic keeps coming to the fore in Claudia Quartet performances. With the establishment of a distinctive drum rhythm, the vibist moves into something of a jazz solo. The bass is fairly forceful, and presumably these musicians could do a good job as jazz sidemen. The music isn't, however, jazz, or necessarily all that jazz-influenced or jazz-like. It's more a case of extremely well developed jazz techniques being turned to ends of contemporary modern classical music. Perhaps Claudia is really a composer's instrument, an odd ad hoc sort of assembly, who might be previewing music that will subsequently have a different, more conventional orchestration. Regardless, it is a group of players each very much concerned with the expressive and tonal capacities of his specific instrument.
Robert R. Calder for Pop Matters

Drummer/percussionist John Hollenbeck is an ambitious person. Not only does he play with a host of others like the Vanguard Orchestra (Thad Jones & Mel Lewis' band), Meredith Monk, Bob Brookmeyer, Cuong Vu and others, he also leads several of his own groups. This wide variety of opportunities affects his music considerably, making its mark on ensembles like the Claudia Quintet, Quartet Lucy, his duo with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and other collectives to which he contributes.

As for the Claudia Quintet specifically, a great deal of time has been spent by listeners, writers, etc., trying to accurately define The Claudia Quintet. The task is, however, for the most part, futile. Sure, the group sound and compositions are a unique combination of dash of jazz, a smidgen of rock, some improv, a touch of non-western sources, or a little chamber. Ultimately, though, all that matters in the end is that this combination simply works. For those unaware of its membership, the group consists of Hollenbeck and bassist Drew Gress, vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordionist Ted Reichman and reedist Chris Speed. The five craftsmen forge a sound that shifts constantly in an unpredictable fashion, perhaps evoking a groove at one moment, soaring into the heights at another, exploring forlorn introspection the next or tackling a swirling sound collage of both prickly and boisterous terrains sometimes using all of these elements within the context of one composition.

As for their recordings, the group's debut album was a great success and demonstrated the depth of Hollenbeck's vision for the ensemble. I, Claudia builds on a similar approach, offering Hollenbeck's unique hypothesis over the course of eight tracks that consider the range of influences noted above.

The program itself begins with "Just Like Him", as Hollenbeck initiates the groove that drives the composition, a warm venture that features the counterpoint of Speed's mournful clarinet and Reichman's accordion as Gress follows Hollenbeck's lead. Moran's vibes are the drawing point here, as they glisten by providing waves of sound that underpin the ensemble's journey. Along similar lines is "Misty Hymen", which demonstrates that Hollenbeck is more than just a timekeeper, with his impressive drum technique ultimately inspiring Speed's tenor flights and one of Reichman's more riveting moments.

On a different plane, "Opening" offers detached notions of beauty that alternate between spacious scrapings and sound washes juxtaposed against a scattered rhythmic spree driven by Reichman and Gress. A similar detached mood revolves on ". . . can you get through this life with a good heart", with its striking, stark lines that ultimately heat up in the end thanks to a luscious clarinet/vibes melody.

As for the remainder of the tracks, Moran's vibes take the rhythmic lead on "Arabic" with Speed's clarinet soaring over an interactive group improv that cools down at its conclusion. A similar otherworldly feel draws one in on "Adowa (for gra)", with Speed's tenor setting the vamp for this African-influenced track where Moran's vibes, especially in the latter half, are glorious. The group parts with a typically bi-polar exploration on "couch". What begins as a heavy, dubbish vamp drifts into foreboding territory as a vibes/tenor duet signals a drift off into a moody reverie.

Hollenbeck has repeated the success of the Quintet's debut with I, Claudia. Hopefully, this band will continue to work together as an outlet for Hollenbeck's extremely active and creative mind.
Jay Collins


released March 31, 2020

produced by John Hollenbeck and Claudia
recorded and mixed by Andy Taub
assisted by Suzanne Kapa at Brooklyn Recording
mastered by Brent Lambert at The Kitchen Mastering
all compositions by John Hollenbeck
© 2004 Grand Blvd Music ASCAP/GEMA

artwork by karlssonwilker.com


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John Hollenbeck Montreal, Québec

Award-winning composer/
John Hollenbeck's entire 20-year catalogue is being re-released digitally here through Flexatonic Records, a U.S. non-profit entity that was formed for his activities.

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