The New York-based drummer, composer, and bandleader John Hollenbeck has far- ranging musical interests, leading four jazz ensembles: the Claudia Quintet, Large Ensemble, Refuge Trio, and Duos. This multi-faceted career has earned Hollenbeck several Downbeat Critics Poll awards, a 2006 Grammy nomination, and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. The New York Times has declared that Hollenbeck “inhabits a world of gleaming modernity,” evident in his idiosyncratic synthesis of minimalism, tightly woven rhythms, and propulsive drive. And he manages to achieve this with “downtown” hipness, but no hint of pretension.
On Royal Toast, he brings Large Ensemble and Refuge Trio pianist Gary Versace on board the Claudia Quintet. As a result, the quintet members— Hollenbeck (drums), Chris Speed (clarinet/tenor saxophone), Matt Moran (vibraphone/percussion), Ted Reichman (accordion), and Drew Gress (acoustic bass)—assume a more percussive role than on past recordings, though each has ample opportunity to solo. Indeed, one of the innovative aspects of this CD can be found in the five short interludes on which Hollenbeck got each quintet member to unknowingly record a duet with himself.
But the heart of the Claudia Quartet’s approach is the deft manner in which Hollenbeck, the composer and arranger, blends both notated and improvised music. The opening and closing tracks set a reserved, reflective mood that is deceptively simple, but reveals the remarkable ensemble abilities of the band members. For example, the opening track, “Crane Merit,” resolves into an eight- note phrase repeated over and again, but which is built upon collectively through slight changes in tone and subtle shifts in accents. It’s a mesmerizing effect.
Instrumentally, and in the album’s far- flung rhythmic and harmonic textures, Royal Toast is a world of ideas, sometimes diverging from sharp, angular rhythms to haunting ambient harmonies. On “Paterna Terra,” for instance, the quintet creates a swath of wonderfully imaginative solos set against intricate, rhythmically complex percussion beats and bass lines, all of which contribute to a sonic vastness akin to the sprawl of a rainforest teeming with a life. At other times, as on “Keramag,” the arrangements are tightly wound with driving rhythms reminiscent of the progressive rock of Frank Zappa.
Reichman and Moran can be mistaken as taking a backseat through most of these proceedings, since their parts are often blended into the ensemble, but on the latter tracks their playing stands out as some of the most engaging on this project. For example, Moran’s “Matt on Matt” vibes interlude and his tasteful work on the subsequent “Zurn” display a delicate but highly emotional quality. Likewise, Reichman’s accordion lends not only rich harmonic textures, but a welcoming, folksy feel that helps to keep this sometimes cerebral music grounded. And while Speed has no chance to perform the explosive post-bop sax solos that have earned him rave concert reviews over the years, his intelligent clarinet playing, layered into the ensemble sound, adds great warmth to the album’s color palette.
Sonically, Hollenbeck (who also serves as producer), along with engineers Andy Taub and Ben Liscio, has created an airy, open soundstage that complements these rich harmonic textures while bringing the soloists into sharp focus.