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John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet and Large Ensemble at Two NYC Venues

Martin Longley By

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The Claudia Quintet
Cornelia Street Café
New York, NY
October 13, 2007

The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

Jazz Standard

New York, NY

November 5, 2007

Drummer and composer John Hollenbeck comes across as a combination of benign control freak and supremely modest humorist. He's very much the director of his (and his bandmates') pieces, applying some beautifully precise drum-patterns that also have a slippery funkiness sitting alongside their new-music accuracy. He's like a clockwork toy creation, frequently placing objects on his skins to facilitate a rickety, robotic click-clacking. Yet Hollenbeck's between-number asides are darkly funny, riddled with self- deprecating angst, as he sometimes explains the convoluted concepts behind his pieces.

Hollenbeck's main forum is The Claudia Quintet which, despite his leadership, has the feel of a fairly democratic unit. On disc, one criticism is that they can sometimes sound too studied, too self- conscious of their vast panoply of influences, from minimalism to post-rock to cool-school jazz. Their production sound can be too ordered. On the live stage, Hollenbeck's combo solve their admittedly slight problems, appearing as a lustier prospect entirely, hardening up the funk.

Keyboardist Gary Versace steps in for this occasion, specializing in deeply throbbing organ tones as he replaces bassist Drew Gress. This imparts an even greater sense of chamber jazz drama, along with the unique spread of Matt Moran's vibraphone, Ted Reichman's accordion and, when he's not blowing tenor saxophone, Chris Speed's clarinet. As Hollenbeck has said, this is an intentionally "feminine" sound, a war waged against the macho competitiveness of much jazz music. Even though there are still many solos taken, their boundaries aren't so proscribed, supported by changing backdrops which often become frontal-drops.

The repertoire is taken largely from their recent For album, although given a more robust interpretation. Often, the wind-driven textures blend into one sound, with reeds and accordion interlaced beside shimmering vibraphone. Moran's approach here is captivatingly aggressive. Rarely will we witness such an attack on this too-often sober instrument. He strikes blows to achieve resonant aftershocks, dynamically glancing off at angular points.

Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble is another matter entirely, employing a work force of nineteen members, including its conductor, J.C. Sanford. Here, horn ranks provide the dominant voice, in direct contrast to Claudia. Hollenbeck released a Large Ensemble disc, A Blessing (2006), but it provides only a portion of the evening's repertoire. Because of the more traditional big band line-up, this music can't help but sound more conventionally jazz-rooted than Claudia, and an hour's set ends up being just too short to avoid the sense that Hollenbeck is striving for equality between soft vocal numbers and forceful blowing vehicles, alternating but not enjoying the time to make these transitions feel like a natural flow.

Singer Theo Bleckmann treads the line between a smooth, almost church-influenced soul jazz and a more abstracted, improvisatory style. The album's title piece provokes a mixed response in its silken choirboy tones, as Bleckmann intones the "Irish Blessing" which Hollenbeck found on the "b-side," as he deadpanningly describes it, of his grandmother's funeral-mass card. The set lifted up to its best in its second half, with Hollenbeck's suitably abstract "Long Swing Dream," which was directly inspired, nay composed, as a result of an extremely vivid dream, followed by his re-consideration of Thelonious Monk's "Four In One," with its stunning extended solo by Tony Malaby.

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