Claudia Quintet Rocks the Library

Unusual instrumentation and spectacular tunes in an intimate setting

I didn’t know all that much about the Claudia Quintet before catching their Saturday night show at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, other than having seen a few of them in other contexts (Chris Speed on reeds and Drew Gress on bass) -- but knowing jazz events coordinator Daniel Atkinson and the inerrant quality of the Athenaeum aesthetic, this was a show I couldn’t afford to miss.

The Claudia Quintet is led by drummer/composer John Hollenbeck who assembled this group with an ear toward singular instrumentation including Red Wierenga on accordion, Matt Moran on vibraphone and the aforementioned Speed and Gress.

The evening began with Hollenbeck’s soft mallets striking toms as Moran laid down a seven-note pattern beneath the winding theme of clarinet and accordion held together by the muscular bass ostinato. The piece reached an emotional apex when all three melody instruments activated a swirl that hovered in the air.

Speed and Moran led off “Peterborough,” straining against the lock-tight groove of Gress and Hollenbeck as the melody unfolded in episodic fashion --converging on surprising unisons that often appeared delirious in nature, building toward a free climax.

Throughout the evening, Hollenbeck entertained the audience between selections with his droll wit, first exhibited when he introduced “September 9,” a dedication to saxophone giant Wayne Shorter and his “favorite month.” This one began as a rubato ballad between Moran and Wierenga before the composer broke things open with a delicious second-line groove while Gress dug in. Hollenbeck has a real gift for melody and form and the ability to highlight a soloist -- in this case, Wierenga -- who proved to be a devastating asset. Out of nowhere, like a “jump cut” in film, one scene came crashing into the next as Moran went off into a multi-note flurry -- toggling between lightning runs and pensive harmonies -- followed by a luxuriant essay from Speed, who took flight with an airy velocity offset by a weighty density in the lower register.  

Another clear highlight happened on “A-List,” which opened with a brawny Gress solo over the hyper-grooving brushstrokes of Hollenbeck while Wierenga pulled long strokes on the squeeze box. Hollenbeck’s melodic lines build up, layer over and across each other in wide arcs anchored by a Herculean pulse -- creating an ecstatic architecture.

Also noteworthy was the leader’s tribute to one of the great drummers in jazz, “Philly,” which exploded out of the gates on a wicked ride-cymbal beat and furious walking bass setting up intricate solos from Speed and Hollenbeck that were rich in detailed information.

These Athenaeum concerts keep getting better. This one will be hard to top.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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