The Claudia Quintet: September

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Artist: The Claudia Quintet
Genre: Jazz
Label: Cuneiform

American jazz may still be a place where the “masculine” values of individuality and virtuosity have the upper hand. This is in contrast, perhaps to the more inclusive,”feminine” jazz now emerging in Europe. But the best jazz is usually produced by groups of musicians who stay together long enough to develop a group sound.

From the legendary groups of Miles Davis and John Coltrane to contemporary bands led by composers Tim Berne and Dave Douglas, the most compelling statements in this artform usually come about through collective improvisation.

To that list must now be added composer and drummer John Hollenbeck and his Claudia Quintet. The group is named for an enthusiastic fan at one of the drummer's early gigs who promised faithfully to return with all her friends and, of course, never did. Hollenbeck says he chose the name because he wanted his all-male quintet "to maintain a female quality".

A decade and seven albums later, The Claudia Quintet have carved out their own defiantly androgynous niche in contemporary improvised music. Some call it post-jazz, which is one of those terms just begging to become obsolete. Whatever you want to call it, this is music that pushes traditional acoustic instruments and conventional jazz forms into new territory – aesthetically, sonically and socially.


The quintet's last, acclaimed album What Is Beautiful? (2010), had singers Theo Bleckman and Kurt Elling channelling the politically charged words of beat poet Kenneth Patchen. For September, Hollenbeck set himself the challenge of composing tunes that could be taught to his fellow musicians without any charts – quite a feat for a contemporary jazz composer. Each tune is given a date in September when it was "written", with further enigmatic descriptors such as 25th/Somber Blanket, 29th/1936 Me Warn You and 12th/Coping Song.

There are jagged grooves from Hollenbeck and bassist Drew Gress, multi-layered harmonies from vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Red Wierenga, and sinuous melodies from saxophonist Chris Speed. But in the end, it's the freshness of the ensemble sound that sets The Claudia Quintet apart. It's as if this is what music will sound like 100 years from now.

Cormac Larkin

Cormac Larkin

Cormac Larkin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a musician, writer and director