Cuneiform Rune 217

Establishing himself as an in-demand percussionist and band leader, New York-based John Hollenbeck usually has several parallel projects on the go. While being on-call in both his roles for associates as different as Meredith Monk, pianist Fred Hersch, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and even Klezmer Madness proves his adaptability, it sometimes adds unforeseen pressures to his own bands.

Thus while The Claudia Quintet, which has been together since 1997, is a cohesive ensemble, you sometimes get the feeling that a few too many influences are on show. Subsequent tunes ping-pong from New music inflections to Middle Eastern slurs and from contrapuntal jazz time to floating Klangfarbenmelodie that abuts AMM-like minimalist territory.

Additionally, the instrumentation here can sound excessively lightweight. Voicing clarinet, accordion, vibraphone, bass, and percussion, plus keyboards and guitar makes a few pieces appear as if they’ve just escaped from a George Shearing or Cal Tjader record; certainly no one seems to be raising a sweat. Additionally, bassist Drew Gress may play with nearly everyone from Tim Berne to Hersch, but overall SEMI-FORMAL lacks low-pitched foundations.

Gress’s unexpected lateness is the subject of an unneeded in-joke before the music begins on “Drewslate”, while Hollenbeck’s unfortunate tendency towards preciousness portends New Age as much as New music vibrations on several shorter tracks. Furthermore, either he or reedist Chris Speed reverberates soundboard echoes on “Kord”, one of the so-called bridge pieces. But this alternating of silence and sound resembles nothing s much as the style of AMM’s John Tilbury writ small.

Other pieces are more commendable. Speed who has enlivened combo sessions by pianist Myra Melford and Berne among others, contributes harder-edged tenor saxophone lines to “They point…glance…whisper…then snicker…”, the CD’s more-than-9½ minute longest tune. His often-altissimo timbre presages tougher and rougher cross rhythms from the drummer and repeated organ-like keyboard vamps from Ted Reichman, who otherwise sticks to screeching and smearing accordion vibrations. Gress walks his bass and even vibist Matt Moran, whose background includes ethnic bands and minimalism, varies the shimmers and quivers that characterize his work throughout. Eventually the theme is recapped on top of gradually accelerating clarinet and drum timbres and the tune ends with the buzz of the vibraphone motor.

Reichman, whose accordion prowess has perked up sessions lead by avant-Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, composer Anthony Braxton and popster Paul Simon pumps resonating tones through tempo changes and acts as focused continuum on other tunes. His soaring meshed tones on “Guarana” expand the variations driven by Speed’s saxophone overblowing to join Moran’s vibes in suggesting a Milt Jackson small group –

if Bags had made common cause with pioneering jazz accordionist Art Van Damme. Bottom tones are still infrequent however, unbalancing the selections.

Even as uncharacteristic a track as “Limp Mint” whose subdivided 12/8 pulse gives it a Middle Eastern as well as improv base, seems only to be rooted during Gress’s bass solo, but the deep groove is sorely tested with contralto clarinet trills, andante vibe runs and sawing and buzzing cymbal work.

Overall, the combination of the drummer’s signature bounces, gyrating accordion patterns, rattling vibes and Speed’s quivering reed command isn’t unpleasant. Hollenbeck fans should be pleased. But others may require more focus and for contrast, some lower, darker colors.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Major Nelson 2. Drewslate 3. Kord 4.They point…glance…whisper…then snicker… 5. Bindi binder 6. Susan 7.Two Teachers 8. Growth 9. Limp Mint 10.Guarana 11. Where's my mint? 12. Boy with a bag and his guardian elephant 13. Minor Nelson

Personnel: Chris Speed (clarinet, tenor saxophone, piano and Casio SK1); Ted Reichman (accordion, keyboards and acoustic and electric guitars); Matt Moran (vibraphone, keyboards and baritone horn); Drew Gress (bass, guitar and pedal steel guitar); John Hollenbeck (drums, percussion, piano, keyboards and fan)