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Led by Acclaimed Drummer-Composer John Hollenbeck, The Group Offers Brilliant New Pieces Written During & Inspired By The Month of September
Drummer-percussionist and three-time Grammy nominee John Hollenbeck, one of the most distinctive and respected composers in jazz and new music, has created an estimable body of work since the late ’90s with his Claudia Quintet. Hailed by Nate Chinen of the New York Times for their “clockwork intricacy and crisp premeditation ... [striking an] accord between the factions of progressive jazz, classical Minimalism and low-glare experimental rock,” the Claudia Quintet tackles Hollenbeck’s highly demanding works with a wry improvising spirit and a backbone of surging, mesmerizing rhythm.
Following up earlier celebrated releases including What Is The Beautiful?, Royal Toast, FOR, Semi-Formal, and I, Claudia the Claudia Quintet returns with September. In the lineup are two newer players: accordionist Red Wierenga, like Hollenbeck an alum of the Eastman School of Music; and (on four tracks) bassist Chris Tordini, a frequent sub for Claudia’s original bassist Drew Gress. Hugely in-demand as a sideman and an inspired bandleader in his own right, Gress appears on six of the 10 tracks that make up September.
Clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Chris Speed and vibraphonist Matt Moran, both Claudia members from the start, play with stirring virtuosity and give Hollenbeck’s writing a sonorous warmth, balancing its more technical and rocking side. Unorthodox textures, fragmented beats and “bright tones filled with folky allusions and plaintive undercurrents” (Siddhartha Mitter, Boston Globe) continue to define the Claudia Quintet’s unclassifiable output.
The new album, September, pays homage to a time of year when Hollenbeck seeks the isolation and creative focus of artist residencies. In the last dozen years — often in September — he’s spent invaluable time at retreats in places as far afield as Italy, New Mexico and upstate New York. Writes Hollenbeck in the liner notes: “September is a wonderful month and, for me, the equivalent of Thursday, my favorite day of the week which I celebrated in song on the first Claudia Quintet CD!”
Each piece on September has a date followed by a title, and the oldest of them, “12th: Coping Song,” harks back to the nightmarish events of 9/11/2001. The experience “has stuck with me,” writes Hollenbeck, “so much so that I realized I cannot think or see or write down a date in September without those memories coming back to me.” It took years but Hollenbeck finally got the idea “to write music that was somehow tied to other days in September in the hope of trying to rework and transform the traumatic residue through composition. I am especially interested in how, through the simple non-violent act of composition, one can help oneself become a better person, deepen one’s connection to humanity, and create work that can soothe and heal.”
September marks another departure in that Hollenbeck chose “to create music for the Claudia Quintet that could be communicated and performed without the use of written music.” The fact that Hollenbeck taught these labyrinthine pieces to the band largely by ear makes the polish and cohesion all the more astonishing.
About the spirited opener “20th: Soterius Lakshmi” — a reference to WNYC morning reporter Soterius Johnson and NPR midday reporter Lakshmi Singh — Hollenbeck says: “It started out as a rhythm piece, and it sounded to me a little like 1010 WINS (AM New York news radio) or other news themes.” Following that, “9th: Wayne Phases” is named for Wayne Shorter, and inspired initially by “those beautiful short phrases that Wayne plays on Joni Mitchell albums and others, then some of his later abstract tunes,” Hollenbeck explains. “It started out as ‘Wayne Phrases,’ and then thinking of ‘wane’ it became ‘Wane Phases,’ and then it evolved recently to "Wayne Phases." In the end I don’t want the music to sound anything like Wayne [Shorter].”
One particular surprise on September is “29th: 1936 ‘Me Warn You,’” with music written to follow the voice patterns of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he delivers a historic speech on partisan trickery in Washington. “The FDR speech was passed on to me in September,” says Hollenbeck, “and I immediately loved the message and then the melody. I transcribed it and only later even thought about writing a piece for it. In the end it’s sometimes a setting of the speech and sometimes it uses the speech as part of the band.” Hollenbeck employs the human voice a few tracks later as well, in very different form, on “17th: Loop Piece.” His political and aesthetic aim on “Me Warn You” harks back to his 2000 landmark “The Drum Major Instinct,” inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and intended to be performed entirely in the dark.
The group enters a quieter, contemplative space on pieces like “22nd: Love Is Its Own Eternity,” which Hollenbeck explains as “the end of a long Krishnamurti statement that I found written in a phone booth at the Blue Mountain Center. The tune came from this vibe.” In contrast, with “24th: Interval Dig” we hear the Claudia Quintet firing on every possible cylinder, giving ample room for Wierenga, Moran and Gress to work out as soloists. “The piece was originally called ‘Interval DiG,’” Hollenbeck says. “Using a combo of capital and lowercase letters is something Drew does a lot, and this piece is a feature for him. It’s a written-out feature that is meant to sound like an improvised feature.”
John Hollenbeck maintains many other projects in addition to the Claudia Quintet, including the innovative John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble that has garnered Grammy nominations for its albums eternal interlude (2009) and A Blessing (2005). Hollenbeck also received a Grammy nomination as a composer for the piece “Falling Men,” which appeared on 2010’s Shut Up and Dance, a two-disc collaboration with the Paris-based Orchestre National de Jazz. Hollenbeck took part as a drummer on two other Grammy-nominated albums as well: his mentor Bob Brookmeyer’s Spirit Music (2006) and pianist/composer Jim McNeely’s Group Therapy (2001). His 2009 release Rainbow Jimmies, a marvelous and varied collection of chamber music, features Matt Moran and the entire Claudia Quintet as well, plus guests.
For more information on The Claudia Quintet, see:
www.johnhollenbeck.com - www.theclaudiaquintet.com