John Hollenbeck describes the sound of his Claudia Quintet as "a warm, thick pudding." It's hard to improve on that, although one could add that the drummer's methods are rigorous and not at all mushy. His third Claudia release, Semi-Formal, follows his large-ensemble disc A Blessing, and the timing is apt. Hollenbeck's gift for imaginative, finely woven orchestration couldn't be clearer, whether he's working with five pieces or 16.
Between Drew Gress' bass, Chris Speed's clarinet and tenor, Ted Reichman's accordion, Matt Moran's vibes and Hollenbeck's multipercussion, this band never lacks for unorthodox color, but Hollenbeck enhances it with inspired doublings. Gress adds electric and pedal-steel guitar, Hollenbeck plays piano, Moran sneaks in some baritone horn and Speed applies daubs of Casio keyboard. These sounds are a departure, and yet Semi-Formal follows logically from Claudia's previous outings in its harmonic depth, formal unpredictability, sonic clarity and overall approachability. The references span from surf rock to chamber jazz to hyperarticulate "acoustica" club beats, all rendered with exquisite precision and heedless abandon (if that's even possible). Compositionally, there are too many moments of brilliance to list here, but one example is the kick-drum/bass unison figure that undergirds "Limp Mint."