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Published: 2004/01/27
by Jesse Jarnow

I, Claudia – The Claudia Quintet

Cuneiform Records 187

The Claudia Quintet's I, Claudia is one of the best of the albums of
the slowly blossoming New Year. Post-rock is sort of a silly term (it
thrice froze up the ordinarily very helpful All Music Guide when I
tried to search for it), but we're kind of stuck with it to describe the
neatly mechanical minimalism-informed instrumental jazz-rock (or is it the
instrumental jazz-informed rock minimalism?) of bands like Tortoise and
TransAm, whose musicians grind with perfectly repeated precision. The
Claudia Quintet, led by percussionist John Hollenbeck, fall into that
category, too.

Everything about their presentation is crisply ordered. There is virtually
no reverb or distortion on I, Claudia (and, where there is, it is
impeccably subtle). The rhythms behind their songs are imbued with a
succinct clarity. There is no chaos in them, though there is complexity.
Hollenbeck is a percussionist, and The Claudia Quintet is driven by the
delicate pairing of his drums and Matt Moran's vibraphone. In combination,
the two frequently sound like a spasmodic wind-up toy. Like Tortoise, the
Claudias use the vibraphone to bridge the gap between melody and rhythm. But
where Tortoise use melody to accent strong rhythms, The Claudia Quintet use
rhythms to accent churning melodies.

The Claudia Quintet swings, Hollenbeck leaning into the grooves to
give them momentum, and The Claudia Quintet breathes. Literally. It's
amazing how much humanity two air-driven instruments – Chris Speed's
clarinet and Ted Reichman's accordion – lend the band. It is this latter
quality that makes The Claudia Quintet special on songs like "Opening" which
pulse steadily via Hollenbeck, but inhale and exhale easily from Speed and
Reichman. Many of the tunes – such as the aforementioned "Opening" – alternate between fast rhythmic excursions and droning minimalism.

"Opening" begins with several prelude-like swells, which are soon joined by
bassist Drew Gress's, then Hollenbeck's, quick 'n' steady tock, which itself
resolves into a darting beat to begin the song proper. Just as quickly,
though, the piece breaks back down into blobs of color, Reichman's accordion
rapidly opening and closing its bellows. It is during ambient breakdowns
like these – and there is one in nearly every song – that the instruments
are allowed to establish their identities, their characters. Letting loose
with long, slow eruptions on one tone, the ear is allowed – almost
unconsciously – to pick up the subtle variations in the instruments' voices.
When they return to dexterous playing, as they inevitably do, they don't
sound like machines at all, no matter how fast they go (and they get pretty
fast; check out the dazzling polyrhythms of the Frank Zappa-like "Misty
Hymen.") One is capable of picking out the masterful alterations in tone.
What at first seemed virtuosic becomes emotional — at least somewhat.

I, Claudia is delightfully challenging. It is neither quaint nor
cute, but it isn't overbearing either. Likewise, despite its overt
complexities, it is never a difficult listen. Like the gorgeously
modernistic green-on-white abstractions of the liner notes, the music shapes
itself on the canvas with an alluring simplicity. It is neither the past,
present, nor future of anything. It is a statement that exists boldly for
itself – hey, its confidence is there in its own name, I, Claudia – and stands proud.

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