The humorously titled Royal Toast is the fifth album from the Claudia Quintet, percussionist and composer John Hollenbeck's longstanding five-piece that isin the eternal words of Duke Ellingtona band "beyond category." Eradicating the tenuous boundary lines between idioms, Hollenbeck and company draw on ethnic traditions, free jazz, contemporary composition and progressive rock in their multifaceted explorations.
A former pupil of legendary jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer and an avowed student of the minimalists, Hollenbeck's compositions are imbued with both the intricate structural layering of the former and the forthright emotional directness of the later. Mirroring the sequencing of the Quintet's previous albums, For (Cuneiform, 2007) and Semi-Formal (Cuneiform, 2005), this date alternates complex long-form works with brief interludes, this time in the form of unaccompanied improvised cadenzas from each member of the group. Joining the leader, multi-reedist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordionist Ted Reichman, bassist Drew Gress and guest pianist Gary Versace each play brief virtual duets with themselves, their multi-tracked solos serving as seamless bridges between compositions.
Versace joined the Quintet as a guest on its previous tour and is featured throughout the record. With Versace added to the mix, the group's sound is dominated by percussive string textures, an aesthetic Hollenbeck ably exploits on these new pieces. Far from mere blowing vehicles, Hollenbeck's intricate compositions allow his sidemen a modicum of solo space, with each member contributing equally to the mix, their subtle contributions blurring the line between the composed and improvised. Like a puzzle, Hollenbeck's modular arrangements feature interlocking counterpoint, cantilevered rhythms and modulating tempos; despite the high-brow approach, these pieces maintain an air of rhythmic immediacy and melodic accessibility.
The polyrhythmic title track, tempo shifting "Armitage Shanks" and funky "Keramag" are among the most infectious examples of Hollenbeck's contrapuntal writingkaleidoscopic mosaics of harmony, melody and rhythm. Embracing genre, the passionate "Sphinx" brings Arabic and African influences to an exotic sonic travelogue that careens with unfettered glee, while "Ideal Standard" and "American Standard" both borrow liberally from jazz tradition. The former is a haunting rubato ballad, the later a driving anthem.
The remainder of the album tends towards an understated, chamber music vibe at the opposite end of the sonic spectrum occupied by such fare as the turbulent "Paterna Terra." The through-composed "Zurn" invokes minimalist concepts, its hypnotic drum and piano figure building tension until the tune's cinematic finale, which is reminiscent of the euphonious opener, "Crane Merit" and the closer, "For Frederick Franck," a lyrical ode to the Dutch painter, sculptor and author.
Balancing dynamics that range from bittersweet balladry to ebullient grooves, Royal Toast is another un-categorizable yet accessible offering from Hollenbeck and the peerless Claudia Quintet.
Personnel: John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion; Ted Reichman: accordion; Chris Speed: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Matt Moran: vibraphone; Drew Gress: acoustic bass; Gary Versace: piano, accordion (16).