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‘Super Petite’ by Claudia Quintet Review: An Unusual Combo’s Varied Terrain
Claudia Quintet alludes to everything from Argentine tango to Pakistani qawwali music.
Drummer John Hollenbeck leads the group with subdued flair. ENLARGE
Drummer John Hollenbeck leads the group with subdued flair. Photo: David Kaufman
By Martin Johnson
June 27, 2016 5:48 p.m. ET
Drummer John Hollenbeck is one of the best and least-heralded composers in jazz, and his experience ranks among the most diverse even in an eclectic age.
In the late ’90s, Mr. Hollenbeck, who is 48 years old, apprenticed with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, playing forward-looking traditional big-band music and in the discreet and intensely lyrical ensembles led by contemporary-classical vocalist Meredith Monk; both influences still resonate in his work. His music thrives on unique harmonies, appealing melodies, and innovative blends of percussion. His primary small group, the Claudia Quintet, has been together for nearly 20 years, and their rapport shows on his new recording, “Super Petite” (Cuneiform).
“Super Petite,” the band’s eighth recording, is aptly named—each piece sounds like a miniature of a larger work, and the Claudia Quintet often sounds like a much larger band. It’s a characteristic derived from Mr. Hollenbeck’s precise compositions, which result in layers of sounds melding together in beautiful fashion, and from the unusual instrumentation of the band. He is joined by bassist Drew Gress, vibraphonist Matt Moran, saxophonist Chris Speed, and accordionist Red Wierenga. These musicians enable the band to explore a wide range of sonic allusions—such as, thanks to Mr. Wierenga in slower and midtempo pieces, the stately ease of Argentine tango and the solemn devotion of Pakistani qawwali music. Mr. Moran’s vibes work particularly well with the leader’s style. Mr. Hollenbeck is not a basher; instead he propels the music with subdued flair.
The recording begins with “Nightbreak,” Mr. Hollenbeck’s reworking of Charlie Parker’s famous alto saxophone solo from the classic “Night in Tunisia.” This version slows down the tempo to a nearly hypnotic pace and builds from a zigzagging contrast of sounds to deliver a compelling work. Two pieces dedicated to airport dogs, “JFK Beagle” and “Newark Beagle,” offer moody music with a noirish effect. In the JFK piece, the bass and accordion create catchy rhythms; the Newark tune showcases the drums and vibes. The band tackles a straight-ahead burner on “Philly,” a dedication to the great jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones, and it highlights virtuosic play from Messrs. Speed and Hollenbeck.
Mr. Hollenbeck, who was born in Binghamton, N.Y., attended the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City and participating in the vibrant lower Manhattan scene of the ’90s. He leads not only the Claudia Quintet—which takes its name from an acquaintance of the drummer from his early days in New York—but the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, a big band that has been twice nominated for Grammy Awards. The Claudia Quintet deftly covers a large amount of musical territory and—like the bands led by such drummers as Tyshawn Sorey, Allison Miller, Rudy Royston and Jeff Ballard—is helping to define jazz today.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal