It’s no easy thing to keep a working, touring band together given the sorry economic fortunes of American improvised music. Yet drummer/percussionist/composer John Hollenbeck has done just this with his quirky Claudia Quintet, rounded out by acoustic bassist Drew Gress, vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordionist Ted Reichman and clarinetist/saxophonist Chris Speed.
On this album of dedications (their third full-length for Cuneiform), Hollenbeck dives even deeper into this group’s personal language, which remains a winning combo of very tricky (but infectious) rhythms and long suspended chords or lines that float and pinwheel in space like a Calder mobile. Beneath these structural elements, though, is lush timbral contrast – between the metal of vibes and the sweet chalumeau of Speed’s clarinet (particularly compelling on “I’m So Fickin’ Cool”) or between the earthen throb of Gress’ bass and the crisp patter of Hollenbeck’s snare.
Like their other releases, For is filled with bracing, dynamic Hollenbeck originals. Many of the pieces sound like the kind of thing new music composition students might cook up for their party band. Consult, for example, the way Hollenbeck mixes skirling Reich-like patterns, dense counterpoint and sweet whimsy on “August 5, 2006.” It’s a really vivid example of this band’s powers. Going deeper into the record, I dig the richly varied percussion on “Be Happy,” which wends its way through alternating dark accordion/tenor chords with abecedarian stair-stepping from the vibes. There’s a gorgeous bass break in the middle, with a dense lattice of notes (Speed circular breathing like Francois Houle) behind Gress and slowly carving out an opening for a mashed-up solo from Reichman. The disc takes a left turn with the darkly beautiful “This Too Shall Pass” (here Hollenbeck stretches into electronics, going for extreme high pitches with Reichman, contrasting with Gress’ big and mournful bass). It’s followed up by a brief spasm of noise (“Rug Boy”) before the moody “For You” (with some gamelan effects and some spoken-word sections).
It’s an exhausting course, almost too dense to digest in a single setting. Good thing, then, that “Rainy Days/Peanut Vendor Mash-up” and the closing “Three Odes” are more reserved (even stately in the case of the latter), coming as welcome changes after the bustling intensity of earlier pieces. All in all, a great ride. Tight band, nice charts, serious grooves, and intense expression – that’s enough for me, and it should be for you, too.