An eclectic music box of a band

Boston Globe, December 25, 2009

NEW YORK – When percussionist and composer John Hollenbeck, an eclectically minded veteran of the New York scene with a portfolio ranging from big band and klezmer to avant-garde “new music,” set out to form his own group, he didn’t necessarily expect to make something as unusual – nor as durable – as the Claudia Quintet.

Now nine years old and about to release its fourth CD, the quintet features a distinctive front line of clarinet, vibraphone, and accordion. Its distinctive sound and Hollenbeck’s ambitious yet accessible compositions have earned critical acclaim and fueled the emergence of Hollenbeck, 41, as a prominent composer, a Guggenheim fellowship recipient who is frequently solicited for adventurous new commissions.

This year Hollenbeck also released a well-received large ensemble record, “Eternal Interlude,” a modern and personal take on the big band, and launched several new projects in different formats. But it’s the Claudia Quintet, which plays on New Year’s Eve at the First Church in Boston as part of First Night, that has been his most consistent vehicle.

“I was looking for something that would be really personal, sonically, and it just came together,” Hollenbeck says of the group’s early days. Goateed and lively, he’s at ease in a track suit in a Brooklyn studio where he’s supervising the mixing of the new album.

His associates – Ted Reichman on accordion, Matt Moran on vibes, Chris Speed on clarinet and sax, and Drew Gress on bass – were all people he picked up on the downtown scene, blending roots in straight-ahead jazz, rock, avant-garde, and Eastern European music.

These influences seem to flit in and out of the quintet’s music without ever bogging it down. Unlike the typical jazz approach, the pieces move through atmospheric phases rather than setting down a theme and returning after solos. The playing is highly sympathetic and favors unison over solos. It can feel pastoral and open, then turbulent and knotty. Each piece ends with a sense of resolution rather than a concluding flourish.

It’s a highly evocative sound, and perhaps because the leader is also the drummer, it makes plenty of room for groove, defying the stereotype of experimental music as oblique and rhythmically deficient. At Claudia shows, feet tap and heads nod.

It’s also music by players with a sense of humor, evidenced by the anecdote that gave the band its name. It stems from an incident at a regular gig that Hollenbeck and Reichman used to have.

“A woman came up named Claudia, and said she was going to be a regular and invite all her friends,” Hollenbeck says. “She never came back, so we started making up stories about her. Now she’s out there somewhere and probably doesn’t know there’s a group named after her.”

But Hollenbeck says the female name also fits the group’s mood and textures. “It has feminine, softer qualities; even when we play angry-ish music it never sounds like that. That was a big part of it from the beginning, hearing a lot of macho-ness in the music and thinking I could maybe try something different. With this instrumentation, it always softens up a bit, which I like.”

Still, Hollenbeck cautions not to read too much into the specific lineup of instruments. He sees them more as a kind of sonic raw material. “Sometimes I think of the group as a giant kalimba, or a big music box. It’s putting the parts together and the cumulative sound that’s really interesting to me.”

Reichman says the group’s members share that outlook. “My whole approach has never been so much about the accordion,” Reichman says. “I approach it as a sound source. It’s not about making this folksy music. I rebel against that. I don’t think anyone else plays the vibes like Matt or plays the accordion like me.”

Each of the Claudia members is busy with a plethora of projects, but the quintet has gone the distance. “Full credit to John,” Reichman says. “He leads by example, and there’s a lot of brotherly love between us.”

The longevity is all the more remarkable because the music is so hard to categorize, which can make a tough sell. “I wouldn’t mind playing in rock clubs, or world music festivals, or chamber halls,” Hollenbeck says. “Sometimes we kind of nudge our way in.”

New Year’s Eve, with its theme of passage and renewal, might be just the right time to discover the quintet, says Reichman. “I think our music would be a very positive way to ring in the new year. We’re trying to increase the amount of beauty in the world.”