Lucid Culture


The Claudia Quintet Make a Triumphant NYC Return Uptown

What’s the likelihood that a band would be better now than they were over two decades ago? The Claudia Quintet defy those odds. They didn’t invent pastoral jazz, but pretty much every rainy-sky jazz group with an accordion (who don’t play Romany guitar swing, anyway) owe a debt to drummer John Hollenbeck’s long-running ensemble. It’s been awhile since they’ve played a New York gig, let alone one at a prestige venue like the Miller Theatre, where they’ll be on March 24 at 8. Tix are as affordable as $20.

On one hand, it’s a good bet that pretty much everybody who’s a fan of the band already has their most recent album, Super Petite, streaming at Cuneiform Records. If the group are new to you, they’re a vehicle for Hollenbeck’s more concise compositions – he saves the most lavish ones for his equally tuneful and relevant Large Ensemble. This 2016 release is as good a place to start as any to get to know the band: the tunes are slightly more condensed than usual, with plenty of cinematic flair and wry humor. Beyond this one, the band’s essential album is September, ironically their most improvisational release, a brooding examination of post-9/11 shock and horror that would have been a lock for best album of 2013 had Darcy James Argue not decided to release Brooklyn Babylon that same year.

Super Petite opens with Nightbreak, an echoey nocturne fueled by Matt Moran’s summer-evening vibraphone, lingering in stereo over the bandleader’s muted, altered shuffle as Chris Speed’s clarinet and Red Wierenga’s accordion waft amid the starry ambience. There’s a Charlie Parker solo hidden deep in this night sky.

Hollenbeck’s all businesslike while Wierenga runs a wary, pulsing loop and Speed sniffs around throughout JFK Beagle, the first half of a diptych inspired by airport drug-sniffing dogs. The second, Newark Beagle begins much more carefree but then Moran takes it into the shadows: cheesy Jersey airports are where the really sketchy characters can be found. There’s more similarly purposeful, perambulating portraiture and a memorably jaunty Speed clarinet solo a bit later on in If You Seek a Fox.

Bassist Drew Gress dances through the acidically loopy, hooky ambience in A-List as the bandleader drives it forcefully: being a meme is obviously hard work. Wierenga’s swoops and dives over Moran’s high-beam gleam is one of the album’s high points. Speed takes careening flight in Philly, a wry shout-out to Philly Joe Jones and how far out a famous shuffle riff of his can be taken.

High harmonies from Wierenga and Moran take centerstage and eventually hit a very funny ending in the brisk but idyllic Peterborough, home to the MacDowell Colony, where Hollenbeck wrote it. Rose Colored Rhythm takes its inspiration from Senegalese drummer/composer Doudou N’Diaye Rose, an epic journey through haze to insistent minimalism, cartoonish riffage and wry syncopation all around.

Pure Poem, which draws on knotty numerical sequences from the work of Japanese poet Shigeru Matsui, has hints of bhangra jabbing through Hollenbeck’s boisterous pointillisms. The album concludes with Mangold, a shout to his favorite Austrian vegetarian restaurant (such things exist – there’s hope for the world!). With sax and vibraphone joining for a belltone attack, it’s unexpectedly moody. Heartwarming to see a band who’ve been around for as long as these guys still as fresh and indomitable as ever.


March 12, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Uneasy 9/11-Themed Masterpiece from the Claudia Quintet

Is the Claudia Quintet the most influential band in jazz over the past ten years? They’re unquestionably one of them. With their unorthodox lineup, they didn’t invent pastoral jazz, but they opened up the floodgates for an onslaught of it. Their new album September finds the group – drummer/composer/bandleader John Hollenbeck with bassist Chris Tordini, tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman – trying to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11. Being a New Yorker, Hollenbeck was directly affected and obviously scarred by the experience. The result of what was obviously an emotionally charged inner dialogue turns out to be a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them.

The album opens with the September 20 piece, titled Soterius Lakshmi. It’s hypnotic and insistent, a one-chord jam portraying something incessant or at least repetitive to the extreme. It’s also a lot closer to indie classical than jazz. By contrast, September 9, Wayne Phases (a Shorter shout-out?) is a dynamically rich, shapeshifting piece; Reichman’s rapidfire runs hand off to Moran’s lingering resonance, up to a through-the-looking-glass vibes interlude and then a fullscale onslaught based a fusiony 80s-style hook that has the suspicious ring of sarcasm. A somewhat vexing look back at the days right before 9/11?

Hollenbeck portrays Sepember 25 as a Somber Blanket: it captures the emotionally depleted, horror-stricken atmosphere two weeks after the twin towers were detonated better than most anything written about that time, musically or otherwise. A morose march slowly coalesces out of a whispery shuffle lit with simple, macabre-tinged vibraphone, Reichman warming it and threatening to take it in a swing direction that it resists. The great coming together that this city experienced hadn’t happened yet: we weren’t ready.

September 19 is memorialized with “We Warn You,” a fluttery, loopy tone poem of sorts into which Hollenbeck has cut and pasted a series of quotes from a crushingly sarcastic 1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt speech mocking the era’s Republican response to the New Deal. Historically speaking, it’s stunning that Roosevelt would dare to expect people to get the subtext: to think that any President in recent years would try to make a point with an audience that way, or, sadly, could do that without being misunderstood, is hard to imagine. At the end of the piece, the group picks up the pace to a tense scamper, Speed’s brooding lines against an opaque drum-and-accordion backdrop before the bass goes leaping and they start it all over again.

The September 22 piece, Love Is Its Own Eternity sets simple, bittersweet motives, individual voices paired against the vibraphone, over an almost trip-hop groove. Lemons, the September 18 song, takes the simplest two-note phrase off on kaleidescopic but precisely articulated tangents, sort of an airier take on Philip Glass. A syncopated minor groove develops out of a circular theme; creepy upper-register divergences generate the most free interlude on the album before the bass pulls everything together again. The aptly tiltled Loop Piece – assigned to September 17 – has a coldly mathematical distance, spacious vibraphone phrases joined by and then intermingling with simple, direct sax and accordion…and then that trip-hop vamp starts up again.

9/24 is represented by Interval Dig – an ominous 9/11 reference if there ever was one – yet this is the liveliest number here, Tordini’s leaping, pulsing drive leading to dizzying polyrhythms. Mystic Klang, the 9/16 segment, reminds of Satie’s interminably creepy Vexations, or Messiaen, with washes from accordion and vibes over looplike, prowling drums. The album concludes with Coping Soon, its troubled rainy-day ambience warming as Hollenbeck takes it halfspeed, Reichman adding brighter colors and a hint of Romany jazz as the rhythm loops and then drops out altogether. It ends nebulous and unresolved. And it leaves a lot to digest, not to mention to think back on for anyone who lived through those horrible days. We need music like this, grounded in reality, inescapably political, brilliantly musical: this is one of best albums of the year, right up there with Darcy James Argue’s equally relevant and genre-resistant Brooklyn Babylon. The Claudia Quintet plays Cornelia St. Cafe on Jan 9 at, 8:30 PM and Jan 10 at 9 and 10:30. The following night, Jan 11 at 8:30, Hollenbeck leads a different ensemble there where he’s joined by crooner Theo Bleckmann for some vocal covers from the Songs I Like a Lot covers album from early this year.

December 25, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noir Unease and Cinematic Wit on Curtis Hasselbring’s Number Stations

A number station is a Cold War artifact, a mechanical voice broadcasting seemingly random words and numbers for spy networks around the world to decode. Curtis Hasselbring’s latest album, Number Stations works a deviously ambitious spy-versus-spy battle between his two main bands: the long-running New Mellow Edwards with Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Trevor Dunn on acoustic and electric bass and Ches Smith on drums and marimba, along with his quartet Decoupage with guitarist Mary Halvorson, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Hasselbring is one of the great wits in jazz: that and an ever-present element of suspense take centerstage here. The whole ensemble has a ball with this. Ostensibly there are secret messages embedded in the music: the whole thing – gorgeously recorded by Hugh Pool at Excello – is streaming at Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp page, fire it up and see what you can decipher!

Takeishi’s faux Morse code sets the stage for Halvorson and Moran teaming up with a mysterioso insistence on the opening track, First Bus to Bismarck, whose eerie swing brings to mind the early Lounge Lizards. Hasselbring’s moody trombone signals a loosening with an almost shamanistic, hypnotically percussive ambience. Tux Is Traitor anchors spiraling vibraphone in more insistent pedalpoint, an offcenter Speed tenor solo and some deliciously warped Halvorson lines, a spy theme on acid. Warped cinematics hit a high point with the droll, period-perfect kitchen-sink bossa and faux-shortwave flutters of Make Anchor Babies, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s score to the 1956 Hitchcock film The Wrong Man.

With its no wave cinematics, punk rhythm and skronky guitar harmonies mingling with the vibes, Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center 95 NB evokes mid-80s John Zorn. It’s Not a Bunny (how about these enigmatic titles, huh?) builds to a pretty standard funk groove, Halvorson adding background menace, Moran’s long, pensive solo signaling a woozy cross-pollination between the two ensembles. It’s the first example of the free, easygoing improvisation that the group builds on the following track, Stereo Jack’s, Bluegrass J’s, a playfully jousting round-robin.

The brief, coyly titled Avoid Sprinter brings back the punk stomp juxtaposed with lively ripples. The album winds up with a slyly uptight little gremlin theme: Hasselbring should sell this to the Simpsons or South Park folks for their Halloween episodes. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2013 page here at the end of the year if we make it that far

July 8, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ran Blake Headlines a Transcendent NEC Jazz Bill at Symphony Space

The New England Conservatory’s New York celebration of forty years of their contemporary improvisation program wound up Saturday night at Symphony Space with Ran Blake alone at the piano. It seemed that the stage lights had gone cobalt blue by then – or maybe that was just synesthesia. The concert’s concluding number was Memphis, a somber Martin Luther King elegy on which Blake intermingled gospel allusions and otherworldly close harmonies, both foreshadowed and then cruelly cut short by a gunshot staccato. It was the essence of noir, both a celebration of life and a grim reminder of everything that threatens what we hold dear. It made a fitting ending for an often exhilaratingly eclectic, emotionally vivid bill featuring NEC alumni and their bandmates from across the generations.

Frank Carlberg and his vocalist wife Christine Correa got the night started with a downtown take on Abbey Lincoln. The Claudia Quintet – drummer John Hollenbeck with bassist Chris Tordini, saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman slowly coalesced into a brightly sweeping, occasionally carnivalesque groove. Their set, the night’s longest, moved from a loping Ethiopian rhythm through lowlit Twin Peaks vibraphone/accordion interludes, niftily polyrhythmic shuffles and finally an animatedly squonking crescendo from Speed.  Fiddler Eden MacAdam-Somer romped solo through an Appalachian flatfoot dance as well as more eclectic, technically dazzling original settings of Rumi poems that sometimes reminded of Carla Kihlstedt’s work.

Pianist Anthony Coleman led a quartet with Ashley Paul on sax and clarinet, Sean Conly on bass and Brian Chase on drums through a partita that alternated between brooding, cantorially-tinged stillness a la Sexmob, and variations on a persistent, uneasily rhythmic circular vamp. Clawhammer banjoist Sarah Jarosz followed with an aptly austere version of a Gillian Welch tune and then teamed up Blake for some playfully biting push-pull on an absolutely lurid version of Abbey Lincoln’s Tender As a Rose, leaving absolutely no doubt that this was a murder ballad.

In what could easily have been a cruel stroke of programming, John Medeski was handed the impossible task of following Blake solo on piano: that he managed not only to not be anticlimactic but to keep the intensity at such a towering peak speaks to how much he’s grown in the past ten years, beginning with an icily otherworldly salute to Blake’s misterioso style and then charging through an expansive, defiantly individualistic, hard-hitting, sometimes wryly messy blend of purist blues, hypnotic eastern resonance, gospel and stride piano. It seemed to sum up everywhere Medeski has been other than with his wildly popular early zeros jamband: he’s at the high point of a career that probably hasn’t reached its summit yet.

Dominique Eade then took the stage solo and swung fearlessly through a number that lept from a torchy nuance to wryly animated, scatting leaps and bounds before being joined by Blake, in a second taking the energy to redline with a mini-set highlighted by a gleaming, rain-drenched, hauntingly cinematic take of The Thrill Is Gone (from their transcendent duo album from a couple of years ago). Christelle Durandy then made the most of her cameo on an unexpectedly verdant, breathily dynamic duo with the iconic pianist who never met a song or a a singer he couldn’t elevate to new levels of white-knuckle intensity. That he ran the NEC improvation program for so long – and still takes part in it – speaks for itself and for the institution.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment