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A Band for the Ages: the Claudia Quintet Plays Holyoke

It’s not often that intellect, passion, and creativity on stage comes together with a receptive audience in the right surroundings. When those stars align, like they did on Saturday, May 27 when the Claudia Quintet performed at Gateway City Arts, the result is transcendent. One’s reaction to music is personal and dependent on many factors of course, but the overwhelming consensus of the 100 lucky people who found themselves at Vitek Kruta and Lori Devine’s resplendent Holyoke hot spot was extremely positive. The standing ovation and resulting encore was but one indication.


John Hollenbeck is a smart cookie, and a talented one. He has managed, with one personnel change, to keep the Claudias (Matt Moran, Chris Speed, Red Wierenga/Ted Reichman and Drew Gress) together for 20 years. That is no mean feat. He has also marshaled the resources to keep his miraculous Large Ensemble afloat (a tour and recording is in the works.) In today’s jazz world, that is very heavy lifting.


Hollenbeck is a commanding, dazzling, melodic drummer. His only unaccompanied solo of the evening began quietly and tuneful, melody emerging from the variety of ways he struck the drumheads. His time on Philly, dedicated to drum legend Philly Joe Jones, was just where you’d expect it to be. All night he provided exactly what the music needed.


He is also a gifted composer, currently teaching the stuff at McGill University, in Montreal. The concert’s set list, all Hollenbeck originals, brought us on a journey through many textures and tempos, eliciting moods of various colors. Post-concert, more than one Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares regular made comparisons to previous concerts by Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth and Allison Miller’s BOOM TIC BOOM. Although the instrumentation and sounds are different, what they share is a strong compositional voice, which nods to the beautiful, catchy and idiosyncratic, while swinging in many styles.


Tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed was last seen in these parts in March, performing with Mary Halvorson’s Reverse Blue. What a pleasure to hear him with the Claudia’s line-up of vibraphone, accordion, bass and drums. His brawn during the swing portion of Philly, was much welcomed. His clarinet joined with Wierenga’s accordion to produce sound beds that were, by turns, plush and provocative. By 6:15 am the next day, he was home to Los Angeles.


Vibraphonist Matt Moran seemed to be at the center of things, the glue or the focal point of the music. Once he played laconic chords along with sax and accordion, while bass and drums were swinging furiously. Other times he was driving the music forward, making like Milt Jackson. Moran, who is childhood buddies with Mystery Train Records owner Josh Burkett, gave a memorable performance last November with the Nate Wooley Quintet at the Shea Theater. His next appearance in the Valley will be at UMass’ Bowker Auditorium in November featuring his nine-piece Balkan/Soul/ Gypsy/Funk band, Slavic Soul Party! In that musical world, Moran keeps his vibes packed and plays traditional Balkan percussion.


Thank god for the accordion. It’s what distinguishes the Claudia Quintet and gives the band its resonance. Wierenga provided dense chordal foundations throughout and took it out when it was his time to improvise. When I told him I had presented accordion master Guy Klusevcek at UMass in 2013, he told me that listening to Klusevcek was what inspired him to pick up the instrument. Nice.


What a pleasure to hear Drew Gress play bass. My friend and colleague Jason Robinson, who uses Gress in his Janus Ensemble whenever he is available, talks about the peace of mind that comes with having Gress on the bandstand. His impeccable time, robust tone and creative response to what is going on about him make Gress a perennial most valuable player. My guess is that John Hollenbeck agrees.


The story of how the band got its name is wonderfully described in Steve Smith’s 2001 liner notes from the first, self-titled Claudia Quintet record. (http://johnhollenbeck.com/sound/the-claudia-quintet/) It illustrates the capricious nature of life and the music that results from it. When openness to happenstance is combined with rigor, creativity and diligence , as it is with John Hollenbeck, you get a seminal ensemble (think Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet, MJQ, Bill Evans Trio, Art Ensemble of Chicago, AIR, etc.) The Claudia Quintet is such a band. It will be talked about and listened to a long time from now.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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