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The Claudia Quintet: Semi-Formal

John Kelman By

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For the Claudia Quintet's third outing, the group expands on the vocabulary of I, Claudia and each member adds new instruments to his respective arsenal. The logical progression of Semi-Formal continues to explore the meeting point of through-composition, exploratory improvisation, and textural soundscapes that the group has been exploring since its 2002 self-titled debut, but with a clear evolution and a honed style that makes this its most fully-realized record to date.

When he first formed the quintet, drummer John Hollenbeck's intention was "...to lose myself in the group—emphasizing the ensemble. It's difficult not to think of the Claudia Quintet as a Hollenbeck project, since he remains its sole composer. Despite contextual differences, his clear voice remains a musical constant regardless of the project, evidenced by A Blessing, his large ensemble outing from earlier this year.

Still, the steadily developing sound of the quintet takes his distinctive writing and fashions it into a unique shape that would be completely different were the material to be tackled by another group of players. In fact, the makeup of the group—unchanged since its first release—is what gives Semi-Formal its inimitable complexion, one which would be radically altered were even one member to be replaced.

Hollenbeck's intention with Semi-Formal was to make "...a record that might not make perfect sense when individual tracks are listened to randomly... a record best listened to in one or two sittings. While some tracks seamlessly flow together, others are broken up by brief silences. The album is indeed best listened to as a whole. Track sequencing is something most artists labor over, but one couldn't imagine it any other way on Semi-Formal. A narrative in the truest sense, these 65 minutes tell a story that is ultimately circuitous; the hypnotic ambience of the closing "Minor Nelson leads right back to the equally trance-inducing opening track, "Major Nelson. But that's only the beginning, as "Major Nelson quickly shifts into a more propulsive, richly contrapuntal rock rhythm.

Impossible to categorize stylistically, the album's boundaries are further broken by shifting musical responsibilities. At one moment, Chris Speed's saxophone carries the bottom end while Drew Gress' bass floats above. At another, Ted Reichman's accordion assumes the melodic lead, a textural backwash and polyrhythmic cohort with Matt Moran's vibraphone. Clearly the quintet views itself as a mini-orchestra, rather than an ensemble based on traditional roles.

While most often lumped into the category of jazz, the Claudia Quintet couldn't be more anti-jazz, despite its reliance on improvisation. It's wholly appropriate that this release appear on Cuneiform, a progressive and impossible to pigeonhole label. That means listeners coming to Semi-Formal will be less inclined to rigidly assess it based on convention. Contemporary classical, jazz, minimal, progressive... genre matters not. The Claudia Quintet is, quite simply, a category all its own—a group of players with the kind of infinite reach to give Hollenbeck's captivating compositions an approach like no other.

Visit John Hollenbeck on the web.


Track Listing: Major Nelson; Drewslate; Kord; They Point...glance...whisper...then snicker; Bindi Binder; Susan; Two Teachers; Growth; Limp Mint; Guarana; Where's My Mint? (mint=president); Biy With a Bag and His Guardian Elephant; Minor Nelson.

Personnel: John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion, piano, keyboards, fan; Drew Gress: acoustic bass, pedal steel guitar, electric guitar; Matt Moran: vibraphone, keyboards, baritone horn; Ted Reichman: accordion, acoustic/electric guitar, keyboards; Chris Speed: clarinet, tenor saxophone, piano, Casio SK-1.

Title: Semi-Formal | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records

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