John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet

I’m late in coming to the drummer-composer John Hollenbeck. (These things happen: so many records, so little time…) It wasn’t until a few months ago that I stumbled upon Eternal Interlude (on the Sunnyside label), the latest CD by his 20-piece Large Ensemble, which, had I heard it earlier, would have made it on my 2009 Best 10 list. (Ditto, just to set the record straight, for Infernal Machines by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, that other wondrous big band that escaped my attention.)

So I hasten to take note of The Royal Toast (on the Cuneiform label), the 5th and latest album by Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet.

Hollenbeck, who’s not quite 42, has said in interviews that the group is named after a woman named Claudia whom he met for a few minutes 15 years ago and that he called the album The Royal Toast because he likes toast, all of which suggests a Dada sensibility at work.

In any case, this is a remarkable album and nearly uncategorizable. The quintet, which has been around since the late 1990s, consists of Hollenbeck on drums, Ted Reichman on accordion, Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor sax, Matt Moran on vibes, and Drew Gress on bass—with the addition, here, of Gary Versace on piano.

It opens with a stirring elegy, teeming with romantic melancholy; then jumps to upbeat circus music, encrusted with a noir bassline; segues into an avant-garde howler, then a gentle piece of minimalism (though, at times, the bass and piano drift off in separate directions, then drift right back as if on cue); and that’s just the first few tracks.

None of it quite swings, but it’s hypnotic, what rich and varied textures he weaves from such simple elements. He’s studied with Bob Brookmeyer, collaborated with Meredith Monk, and played with several jazz musicians of a more conventional bent. Still, this doesn’t account for the kaleidoscope of influences on display—I hear bits of Carla Bley, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell, Philip Glass, a little Cage and Copland, maybe some South Asian rhythms—all fused in a distinct, original sound.