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The Claudia Quintet - Royal Toast

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Artist: The Claudia Quintet

Album: Royal Toast

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: May. 18, 2010

A good chamber music composer lets you hear all of the combinations a group can offer. A great chamber music composer makes the group sound larger than it is. John Hollenbeck is in the latter category, and this newest Claudia Quintet offering confirms his mastery of form and orchestration on an expertly programmed disc.

The decade-old quintet has long been praised for eschewing category. Hollenbeck, Matt Moran, Drew Gress, Chris Speed and Ted Reichman are all veterans of musical situations that involve boundary busting; Hollenbeck brings their talents together, along with guest pianist Gary Versace, in a compositional vision that encompasses everything from groove-based minimalism to tonally ambiguous ballads. His trademark rhythmic interplay and tempo juxtaposition is ever-present, as is his penchant for beautifully chosen instrumental color. That said, a new level of concentration is achieved here, making these fairly brief tracks seem longer than they are. Watch the miniature masterpiece “Paterna Terra” travel its path from atomistic free jazz toward increasingly dense layers of counterpoint and rhythmic complexity to see how much Hollenbeck can pack into five and a half minutes. By the climax, the quintet seems to have grown to twice its size. Yet, each gesture also connotes a world as Speed’s tenor dialogues with modified percussion — possibly bowed vibes — before the groove slides into place.

Throughout the disc, my concentration veered continually between micro and macrocosm. The recording is as good as the music, so that the reediness of Reichman’s accordion and Speed’s clarinet contrast and merge in Technicolor, Moran’s vibes often providing a glassy sheen. As if to highlight these relationships, almost as a subtext, there is a series of improvised and multi-tracked duets at strategic points throughout the album where each player dialogues with himself. Each then transitions seamlessly into the following composition. The serpentine “Ted Verses Ted” leads without pause into Reichman’s solo entry on the rhythmically morphing “Armitage Shanks.” The vignettes lend the whole a certain unity in juxtaposition which mirrors the moment-to-moment changes in timbre and tempo.

Gary Versace’s pianism is a perfect addition to the group aesthetic. He’s certainly no stranger to Hollenbeck’s music, having toured with Claudia and participated in Hollenbeck’s large group projects. His playing is intellectually rigorous and exciting by turn, and he is comfortable in the very different roles of ensemble player and soloist. His contributions are just one more reason for Royal Toast’s overwhelming success. For those unfamiliar with this exemplary quintet and its composer, there’s no better place to begin.

By Marc Medwin

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