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The Claudia Quintet - I, Claudia

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Artist: The Claudia Quintet

Album: I, Claudia

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Mar. 29, 2004

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 – 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 ol’ 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 Hollenback’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 “Misty Hymen” prove an exception to the general compositional method. There are all kinds of details throughout the disc – most generated by the leader, who may blow through a plastic tube or dabble in radio static – 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.

By Jason Bivins

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