Here's something I don't hear a lot of: avant-garde for people who appreciate music.
There's a glut of albums with new concepts, daring or just flat-out madness, but 2004's I, Claudia by the Claudia Quintet is a rare disc where something more insightful is happening at the assembly line. Snippets of classical, world beats, jazz, uber rock and... uh, "other stuff" make appearances, frequently built on unconventional groupings of sounds and/or instruments. What impresses is how the variety of simple and complex passages blend coherently even when harmonics clash rather than blend. A century or so ago, they'd be composing symphoniesor maybe introducing alternative rockfor the proletariat.
Drummer John Hollenbeck leads the group and wrote the eight songs for I, Claudia. Among the themes, he says, are an accordion/clarinet "therapy session" to get back at an old girlfriend, "happy funeral music" from Africa and a tribute to his couch's "undeniable power to induce wonderful naps."
Hollenbeck paces the album well, but it's Chris Speed on woodwinds, Ted Reichman on accordion, and Matt Moran on vibraphone and percussion who dominate the various audio collages (bassist Drew Gress is consistently excellent, but more dramatic interplay elsewhere draws attention away from him). If there's any pattern, perhaps it's a continuing or slightly shifting riff by one or more players to anchor tunes while others explore. But consistency of style is not this album's strong suit and listeners banishing it to the background will likely dismiss it as wasteful modern indulgence.
Unfortunately, Hollenbeck might lose a few on the relatively weak "Just Like Him," opening the album with a fast off-the-meter contemporary beat and some instrumental noodling before sifting to some distorted '70s fusion. It's actually a relatively subtle mix and I kept thinking it might come across better later, sort of the way people saw genius in Miles Davis' simpler songs once he established bona-fides on intense stuff.
Prospects get much brighter, however, and mostly stay that way with "Opening," where a layer of ambient cymbals meets an unlikely combination from the other players of modern stage and "computer-driven music of the '70s/'80s." Reichman plays freestyle with a Wayne Shorter-like fleetness on the rapid, choppy "Misty Hymen" (a tribute to the Olympic swimming champion), making Speed's subsequent heavyweight post bopmaybe the only true jazz on the albumlyrical in comparison. The African funeral song, "Adowa," has little mournful quality as Hollenbeck's dance rhythms are layered with alternating textures of rapid and droning notes by Reichman, all covered with intermingling snippets from Moran and Speed.
It's easy to get lost describing pieces since, like a grease-covered pig, it's hard keeping them pinned down for long. But I, Claudia consists of elements simple enough that most open-minded listeners can take it in without the teeth-knashing conflicts experimental music sometimes induces. It's one of those albums where first-timers should arm themselves with some coffee and the composer's notes (available at John Hollenbeck's web site ), and spend an hour experiencing the world through someone else's audio prism.
Personnel: Drew Gress, bass; John Hollenbeck, drums; Chris Speed, clarinet, tenor sax; Ted Reichman, accordion;
Matt Moran, percussion, vibraphone