For many of us, September brings with it the crush of the academic year and the press of autumn's hyper-productive stretch, the lead-up to the holiday season. It's the busiest time of the year. We become like frantic squirrels scurrying to gather nuts in preparation for the cold months. Jazz composer, drummer and bandleader John Hollenbeck has managed to turn September into a time of introspection. Last week Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet released its album, titled September. Hollenback wrote the bulk of the material last September while spending time at an artists' colony. He spoke with the Advocate last week from Wyoming, at the tail end of a similar retreat, in advance of the Claudia Quintet's tour, which brings them to New Haven.
Hollenback, 45, lives and teaches in Germany, where the academic year doesn't begin until October, so it makes sense to use the end of summer and start of fall as a time to reenergize creatively.
"It's the only time when I can do stuff like this," says Hollenbeck. This past month Hollenbeck spent time boning up on a few books, diving into the work of a few composers he's interested in, and writing his first orchestral piece, which he describes as a "monumental task."
September, the new record, is an intriguing, smart, and wide-ranging creation, with spirited open-ended improv stretches, as well as tightly arranged, nimble compositions, and cool '70s-soundtrack reflections ("Sept. 22nd - Love Is Its Own Eternity"). The titles have dates associated with their inspiration or composition. The album, and the quintet's sound in general, is defined by the curious sonic possibilities created by the layering of vibraphone (Matt Moran) and accordion (Red Wierenga).
That configuration of instruments is one that Hollenbeck and his collaborators arrived at through interpersonal and chance connections, through other gigs and acquaintances, but it's one that Hollenbeck has found fruitful.
"It was an experiment more or less that put them together," says Hollenbeck.
"Since then, I've learned how to use the instruments in a unique way."
And when the sound of clarinet is factored in, the combination has a kind of Ellington-effect, a strangely sombre and mysterious quality, one part glassy transparency and one part magenta haze.
"When you add the clarinet in there it ends up sounding to me like a hyper instrument," says Hollenbeck. "They blend so well that you can't tell what it is. A lot of times it sounds like another instrument, an instrument that's been made up, like a giant kalimba."
But Hollenbeck is a drummer. He can move from strafing, needle-stitch accents and eruptions, to deft, propulsive polyrhythmic grooves. Rhythmic intricacies gird many of the compositions, like the crisp opener ("Sept. 20th - Soterius Lakshmi") which ticks along, basically a one-note lopsided staccato phrase inspired by the incessant lead-in music on radio and TV news.
Elsewhere the rhythms of the spoken word are mined for their musical potential. On "Sept. 29th - 'Me Warn You,'" Hollenbeck takes bits of an FDR speech and layers drum patterns modeled in part on the flow and stop of syllables. It's an entertaining experimental touch. (Hollenbeck has used speeches in his music before.)
"Sometimes I just find speeches — I usually have to like the statement of the theme," says Hollenbeck. (The 1936 speech, popularly known as the "Let Me Warn You" speech, is a sarcastic one, a warning about right-wing objections to social programs, social security and protecting homeowners. It sounds relevant today, in this age of government shutdowns and ongoing debate about the virtue of health care.)
On the Claudia Quintet's recording, the meaning of this speech is there to be felt, but it slowly morphs, with looped bits, cymbals splashing and ticking along with the patterns of FDR's rising and falling voice. The short speech — originally just over a minute — gets turned into a 10-minute funhouse ride, with the musicians eventually taking off and leaving the words behind before one last return at the finish.
"If I listen to it long enough," says Hollenbeck, "I just start hearing the melody and the rhythm."
The Claudia Quintet
Oct. 4, 8:30 pm and 10 pm, Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., New Haven, (203) 785-0468, firehouse12.com