AMN Reviews: The Claudia Quintet – Super Petite (2016; Cuneiform Records)

A presence in the creative jazz scene for over 15 years, John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet is back with their eighth release, Super Petite. Their lineup has remained unusually static over time. The group currently features, in addition to Hollenbeck on drums, Red Wierenga on accordion, Matt Moran on vibes, Drew Gress on bass, and Chris Speed on clarinet and sax. It is hard, if not impossible, to pigeonhole their sound but for now let’s call it highly-composed chamber jazz with world music influences.

The album consists of ten short to medium length tracks, each one comprising Hollenbeck’s knotty writing, adeptly played by all. As an example, the opener, Nightbreak, features a soft, slow-moving contrapunctal theme of clarinet, vibes, and bass, with accordion and drums on backing roles. But Super Petite really gets moving with the third track, A-List, which starts with a wandering bass line, while the other instruments slow build up tension that breaks into a rather catchy and complex theme. Hollenbeck writes that this piece is a “theme song for an imaginary video featuring The Claudia Quintet strutting down the red carpet. Think ‘Entourage’ meets the ‘Geek Squad.'”

Several of the tracks are based on or influenced by works of the greats – Charlie Parker, Philly Joe Jones, and Doudou N’Diaye Rose – and one (If You Seek a Fox) is even a jab at his “least favorite TV news network.” (The track is quite good regardless of your feelings about Fox News.)

Under Hollenbeck’s leadership there is little showmanship or superfluous flourishes. Each musician plays his part – and plays it well – but is more focused on being part of the collective rather than a soloist. As a consequence, this is a recording that might not jump out at you on first listen. It is subtle, exhibiting a rare depth that may take some time to appreciate. But the investment will be well worth it. Highly recommended.