Releasing three quite noteworthy CDs in as many months, drummer/composer John Hollenbeck certainly made what one might describe as an "auspicious debut" as a leader. Just consider the range of styles covered in this burst of activity. No Images, Hollenbeck's initial recording from October 2001, is the most avant-garde of the three, with drums and saxophones squaring off in free jazz territory and trombones and drums accompanying the taped voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Quartet Lucy, hitting the street in January 2002, reflects Hollenbeck's attraction to the austere and spacious music of the ECM label. And The Claudia Quintet (released on the very same day as Quartet Lucy), a recording of subtlety, beauty, and a fair measure of fire smoldering beneath its surface. Hollenbeck may have an avant streak as wide as the pond between Tonic and Bimhuis, but he's surely not one to avoid a groove. In the Claudia Quintet's drum chair, he often locks into a rhythm and gradually builds the intensity of his attack, taking his own sweet time to reach the dynamic peak in a piece of music. Hollenbeck also propels the music forward with a crisp and clean style that doesn't overwhelm his bandmates, including Chris Speed, the noted N.Y.C. reedman who tends to prefer subtle expressiveness over displays of high-volume bluster. On this debut CD by the band, Claudia pursues a cool after-hours chillout vibe much of the time, and the instrumentation should suggest what Hollenbeck is after: aside from Speed (contributing a bit of tenor sax in addition to clarinet), the quintet features vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordionist Ted Reichman, and ubiquitous upright bassist Drew Gress.
This lineup doesn't require listeners to stuff cotton in their ears to prevent hearing damage. The inclination is rather to pull out the cotton in order to best appreciate the clarity and nuance of this ensemble -- the round tones of the clarinet, shimmer of the vibes, earthiness of the accordion, and deep resonance of the bass. All the instruments are afforded room to breath, as unembellished melodic lines and shifting harmonics are drawn out across the sure and steady pulse and gathering rhythmic energy of "Meinetwegen" and the first and third of the album's "Thursday" compositions. Modalism and momentum are traded for spacy atmospherics on the second "Thursday" piece, with its ringing and sustained tones courtesy of Moran's bowed and struck vibes. But don't think The Claudia Quintet is entirely a space cruise, as the album includes the lovely downtempo ballad "Love Song for Kate," the swinging tenor-driven "Burt and Ken," the nearly cacophonous riot of voices during the improvised middle section of "a-b-s-t-i-n-e-n-c-e," and the angular stop-and-start "No D," in which Reichman fires off a solo on accordion that sounds about as wild as one could get without breaking the thing. Auspicious debut, indeed. One senses that a new and important voice has emerged on the New York creative music scene. John Hollenbeck's future output is cause for much anticipation, whether he chooses to release subsequent albums single-file or two and three at a time. [The Claudia Quintet and Hollenbeck's other CRI Blueshift recordings may be purchased directly from his website.]