What’s the likelihood that a band would be better now than they were over two decades ago? The Claudia Quintet defy those odds. They didn’t invent pastoral jazz, but pretty much every rainy-sky jazz group with an accordion (who don’t play Romany guitar swing, anyway) owe a debt to drummer John Hollenbeck’s long-running ensemble. It’s been awhile since they’ve played a New York gig, let alone one at a prestige venue like the Miller Theatre, where they’ll be on March 24 at 8. Tix are as affordable as $20.
On one hand, it’s a good bet that pretty much everybody who’s a fan of the band already has their most recent album, Super Petite, streaming at Cuneiform Records. If the group are new to you, they’re a vehicle for Hollenbeck’s more concise compositions – he saves the most lavish ones for his equally tuneful and relevant Large Ensemble. This 2016 release is as good a place to start as any to get to know the band: the tunes are slightly more condensed than usual, with plenty of cinematic flair and wry humor. Beyond this one, the band’s essential album is September, ironically their most improvisational release, a brooding examination of post-9/11 shock and horror that would have been a lock for best album of 2013 had Darcy James Argue not decided to release Brooklyn Babylon that same year.
Super Petite opens with Nightbreak, an echoey nocturne fueled by Matt Moran’s summer-evening vibraphone, lingering in stereo over the bandleader’s muted, altered shuffle as Chris Speed’s clarinet and Red Wierenga’s accordion waft amid the starry ambience. There’s a Charlie Parker solo hidden deep in this night sky.
Hollenbeck’s all businesslike while Wierenga runs a wary, pulsing loop and Speed sniffs around throughout JFK Beagle, the first half of a diptych inspired by airport drug-sniffing dogs. The second, Newark Beagle begins much more carefree but then Moran takes it into the shadows: cheesy Jersey airports are where the really sketchy characters can be found. There’s more similarly purposeful, perambulating portraiture and a memorably jaunty Speed clarinet solo a bit later on in If You Seek a Fox.
Bassist Drew Gress dances through the acidically loopy, hooky ambience in A-List as the bandleader drives it forcefully: being a meme is obviously hard work. Wierenga’s swoops and dives over Moran’s high-beam gleam is one of the album’s high points. Speed takes careening flight in Philly, a wry shout-out to Philly Joe Jones and how far out a famous shuffle riff of his can be taken.
High harmonies from Wierenga and Moran take centerstage and eventually hit a very funny ending in the brisk but idyllic Peterborough, home to the MacDowell Colony, where Hollenbeck wrote it. Rose Colored Rhythm takes its inspiration from Senegalese drummer/composer Doudou N’Diaye Rose, an epic journey through haze to insistent minimalism, cartoonish riffage and wry syncopation all around.
Pure Poem, which draws on knotty numerical sequences from the work of Japanese poet Shigeru Matsui, has hints of bhangra jabbing through Hollenbeck’s boisterous pointillisms. The album concludes with Mangold, a shout to his favorite Austrian vegetarian restaurant (such things exist – there’s hope for the world!). With sax and vibraphone joining for a belltone attack, it’s unexpectedly moody. Heartwarming to see a band who’ve been around for as long as these guys still as fresh and indomitable as ever.