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The Claudia Quintet: Semi-Formal

Tom Greenland By

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Painter Georges Seurat, the inventor of pointillism, believed that small, discrete units of color could be effectively juxtaposed to interact in complex yet clarifying ways. John Hollenbeck, drummer and maestromind behind the Claudia Quintet's third release, Semi-Formal, seems to employ a similar modus operandi in his innovative compositional techniques. Writing for a quintet of sonically similar instruments, Hollenbeck exploits their individuality by leaving room on his canvas for each voice to sound alone, even as they are effectively conjoined in a constantly changing aural mosaic that, for all its discrete tessellation, remains of a piece.

Semi-Formal goes down like a day of wine tasting: aficionados will find much to savor in the blending of sonorities, the subtle yet structurally sound compositional architecture, the "palette-cleansing segues that thematically link the tracks, and the sophisticated time signatures and rhythmic phrase structures that swing so hard they appear effortless; casual listeners will appreciate the driving grooves and prog-rock edge of tracks like "Major Nelson and "Two Teachers interspersed with zen-like moments of breath and relaxation.

Highlights include Chris Speed's thoughtfully liberated tenor musings on "They point... glance...whisper...then snicker, his out-chorus obbligatos on "Drewslate, accordionist Ted Reichman's hard-moshing organ-grinder grunge on "Two Susans, and bassist Drew Gress' conversational solo on "Limp Mint and fine rhythmic support throughout.

The shimmering wash of Matt Moran's vibraphone provides continuous counterpoint, commingling with the accordion, electric piano, and clarinet in close clusterings of heterogeneous sound. This effect is noticeable on "Drewslate ; on "They point..., where vibes, keyboard, and organ blend in a nearly indiscernible mix; on "Growth, with its splashes of pedal steel guitar over a background of chimes; and on "Where's my mint?, in which the ringing, flange-like tones of tremoloed vibes, electric piano, and tinkling guitar are seamlessly fused.

Like the paintings of Seurat, close and repeated inspections of Semi-Formal will reveal the sophisticated thought processes underlying it, a polyphonic plexus of carefully structured creativity. However, if we stand back from the work, putting it into larger perspective, the continually morphing pixels coalesce into a chromatic composite, a synergistic whole belying the individuality of its parts.


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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