The Claudia Quintet – I, Claudia

Listening to The Claudia Quintet’s second album, I, Claudia, one cannot help but think of Tortoise. Certainly, there are worse bands to which artists could be compared, though it seems important for The Claudia Quintet to distinguish itself from Tortoise based on its members’ formal jazz education and concentrated background. Academic pursuits and traditional jazz experience work in The Claudia Quintet’s favor, but does the NYC-based band keep the musical affair as interesting as Tortoise’s recent masterpiece, It’s All Around You?

I, Claudia opens with “Just Like Him,” in which somewhat discordant woodwind high notes and twinkling vibes dominate. “Just Like Him” is more intricate than most contemporary free jazz and maintains some sort of melody, though it’s not nearly as interesting as “Opening.” That second track appropriately begins with an atmospheric pomp and then shifts through pauses and unpredictable low notes to a reverb-heavy piece that recalls some progressive rock from the 70s and especially “Baba O’Riley” by The Who. “Arabic” sounds like the gifted child of a pregnancy conceived by mid-80s Marillion and Prokofiev (“Peter and the Wolf”). Yes, that’s Marillion, Misplaced Childhood-era with Fish and the heavy drama.

“The Cloud of Unknowing” hearkens to Medieval times with a serenity not found anywhere else on I, Claudia. Near the end of the piece, the vibraphone’s dominance modernizes the music and shifts the focus from Middle Ages tranquility to contemporary tension. “The Cloud of Unknowing” begins better than it closes, but it’s still one of the best tracks on I, Claudia. “Adowa (for gra)” is a buoyant work based around a West African dance usually played at funerals, but listeners may be forgiven for thinking it’s an undiscovered soundtrack gem that should have been used for action-adventure comedies in the jungle.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of I, Claudia is the sax-centric “Misty Hymen.” This funky track has a wonderful bounce and an invigorating buzz with a title that will surely make most listeners wonder or wink. The Claudia Quintet’s leader, John Hollenbeck, claims he composed the piece so he could say “Misty Hymen” in public as much as possible, and if it reflects the strong butterfly strokes of the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic swimmer with the same name, then the track is that much more successful. Taken at its double meaning with such energizing saxophone and accordion, “Misty Hymen” perfectly demonstrates what The Claudia Quintet can achieve when it loosens up and builds on its sense of humor and fun.

Cleverly titled and consistently well-played, I, Claudia is a good album that unfortunately meanders sometimes and needs an energy boost too often across a 55-minute LP. Nonetheless, this is an interesting progression for The Claudia Quintet in particular and jazz in general. Considering it’s a formally trained jazz quintet trying to gain indie support, The Claudia Quintet should focus more on livening its usually enjoyable music and less on trying to trump Tortoise. There is room for both quintets. It took the Chicagoans five albums to perfect their sound; let’s see what The Claudia Quintet does over its next three LPs.