This review appears in the June 2010 issue of All About Jazz-New York.

The Claudia Quintet, Royal Toast (Cuneiform)

By David R. Adler

With one exception, drummer John Hollenbeck hasn’t taken prominent front-cover credit on releases by his Claudia Quintet. This holds true for Royal Toast, the band’s extraordinary fifth album. The decision makes sense, for Hollenbeck’s labyrinthine compositions get much of their subtlety and force from the individual players that have defined the group’s identity from the start.

On Royal Toast, Hollenbeck yields the floor to each of them in turn, and so “Ted versus Ted” features accordionist Ted Reichman in a brief double-tracked duet with himself; “Drew with Drew” highlights bassist Drew Gress in the same fashion; “Matt on Matt” gives vibraphonist Matt Moran his turn; and “Chris and Chris” features the sparring tenor saxophones of Chris Speed. Of course there’s also “Keramag Prelude,” a Hollenbeck drum solo, and “‘Ideal’ Intro,” an abstract, reverb-soaked meditation by pianist and special guest Gary Versace, who expands the quintet to a sextet. Each improvised sketch flows naturally into the dense through-composed track that follows, cleansing the palette and helping listeners digest the music in all its extended brilliance.

Hollenbeck has worked a good deal in chamber and modern classical settings, and his writing for the Claudia Quintet involves a level of multipart detail one would expect from a new music ensemble like Alarm Will Sound. The key difference is the fitful improvised component, as well as the raw rhythm lurking under every shimmering harmonic texture or contrapuntal flourish, from the slower passages of “Zurn,” “Armitage Shanks” and the opening “Crane Merit” to the breakneck assertions of “Keramag,” “Paterna Terra” and “Royal Toast.” For all its clashing asymmetry and constant, baffling change, the music radiates with steadiness and grace.