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To paraphrase the great Bill Evans, "jazz is not so much a style, but a process of making music. John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet is deeply immersed in this process. Semi-Formal is an interesting synergy of improvisation, Steve Reich-like minimalism and changing moods effected by varying grooves: techno rave drums, pseudo and authentic hip-hop, and polyrhythmic patterns.
Semi-Formal harkens back to some forms of Gagaku, an ancient Japanese court instrumental music where each timbre, instrumental or chordal development leads to a heightened emotional change. The music slowly draws you in as you delight in each turn of events. The Claudia Quintet is an incredibly sensitive group of players, each working with full sensory awareness of the others' playing style. Hollenbeck's compositions warrant sensitive treatment, which these chamber jazz musicians carefully give them.
The recording begins with a short segment of the final tune, "Minor Nelson, tacked on to the beginning of "Major Nelson, making for a bookend effect. Most of the pieces segue into each other. "Drewslate/Kord/They point...glance... whisper...then snicker makes for a fascinating "suite" of tunes, while the minimalist compositional form of "Susan" offers very subtle, but refreshing changes. "Two Teachers, "Guarana and "Boy with a bag and his guardian elephant are standout features for their infectious grooves. Semi-Formal plays like quirky vignettes of Hollenbeck's personal experiences, all with interesting titles and hidden tales behind the music.
The Claudia Quintet's April performance at Cornelia Street Café presented Hollenbeck's compositions in the most desirable light. The subtle contrasts alluded to on Semi-Formal are enhanced by experiencing the band in a live setting. Often the blending of clarinet or tenor sax, accordion and vibes gave a rich tonal blanket for the driving grooves that Hollenbeck and bassist Drew Gress set for the different sections of the tunes. Chris Speed's tenor saxophone solo on "Gaurana alluded to the high-energy tenor solos of John Coltrane, selecting from a minimal palette of notes to play strategically over the drum groove. The sarcasm of "They point... was made humorously obvious by the whines and teases of Ted Reichman's accordion.
The "jazz process continues with the explorative efforts of groups like the Claudia Quintet, a band at the vanguard of a progressive movement.
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.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.