At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
John Hollenbeck has been an important artist in and around improvised music in this century, not only as a drummer-bandleader but also as a composer and an arranger. The restriction I set for myself with the 129 Essential Albums list was difficult here, because I knew I could only include one album credited to Hollenbeck, and there are several others that could easily have made the cut. I'm still not sure, writing now, that The Claudia Quintet was the right choice; there have been more polished albums since, not only from the five-piece in question but also from the spectacular John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. (The most recent by that next-wave big band, All Can Work, was released early this year, and warrants some of your time.)
What led me to select this album over any others, ultimately, was the notion of impact. Back in 2001, when The Claudia Quintet emerged from a DIY coffeehouse improv scene on the Lower East Side, its gracefully amalgamated sound was uncommon, idiosyncratic and totally inspired. As I sat down to write this post, I tried to remember what I thought about the album when it first arrived, and somehow the internet obliged. Below, find a Critic's Pick blurb from the late, lamented Philadelphia City Paper in 2002. I haven't changed a word.
It's impossible to classify The Claudia Quintet (postmodern-ethnic-ambient-chamber-jazz, anyone?) but surprisingly easy to understand its language. A brainchild of percussionist John Hollenbeck (best known for supporting roles with Meredith Monk, Bob Brookmeyer and Cuong Vu), the ensemble reflects his allegiances to both the roughshod polyrhythms of field recordings and the lunar shimmer of ECM. On a brand-new, eponymous Blueshift CRI debut, these ostensibly dueling impulses get absorbed into a larger, more intriguing pattern of ebb and flow. Texture is naturally a key component, given the band's frontline of vibraphone, clarinet and accordion — but the central figure in Hollenbeck's drama is pulse, often obliquely independent of rhythm or time. It's a delicate equation, but it works beautifully, thanks to clarinetist Chris Speed, accordionist Ted Reichman, bassist Drew Gress and vibraphonist Matt Moran. Like Hollenbeck, these musicians have the rare ability to wax ethereal without dulling their edges.