What Is The Beautiful?

The Claudia Quintet +1 feat. Kurt Elling & Theo Bleckmann

2011, Cuneiform Records

What Is The Beautiful?

Chris Speed  clarinet/tenor saxophone
Matt Moran  vibraphone
Ted Reichman  accordion
Drew Gress  acoustic bass
John Hollenbeck  drums/keyboard/comp.

special guests
+1 = Matt Mitchell  piano
Theo Bleckmann  voice (2, 5, 8, 11)
Kurt Elling  voice (1, 4, 7, 10, 12)

“Soon it will/Be showtime again,” recites Kurt Elling at the outset of The Claudia Quintet’s sixth CD, What Is the Beautiful? “Somebody will paint beautiful faces all over the sky.”

The sentiment expressed by those lines, penned by poet/visual artist Kenneth Patchen, captures something of the anticipation proffered by the release of a new Claudia album. Bandleader/percussionist John Hollenbeck’s evocative, richly luminescent compositions definitely possess the suggestive power to encourage listeners to look heavenward, searching for those faces in the sky.

Richard Peek, director of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester Libraries, describes Patchen’s body of work as one that “defies easy categorization and is undeniably his own.” Perhaps in that one statement, more than in any aesthetic choice or thematic material, we can find the common ground between poet and composer.

Most of the material on What Is the Beautiful? was commissioned by the University of Rochester for its 100th birthday celebration of Patchen in 2011. Not particularly conversant with the poet’s work, Hollenbeck began a crash course and found himself immediately drawn to the breadth of Patchen’s themes.

“He has a wide palette, which I like,” Hollenbeck says. “There are a lot of really dark, political poems, but then he has whole collections of almost childlike drawings with very short, funny poems. And usually in every collection there are lyrical love poems, always dedicated to his wife, which are more flowery, almost old-fashioned. I really started to love the humor, the darkness, and the sincere love he had for his wife.”

Born in 1911, Patchen was an avant-gardist with strong pacifist leanings. His work bears an obvious kinship with the Beats, though he dwelt on the periphery of that scene, never one to align himself with any movement or affiliation. He was an early experimenter in the fusion of jazz and poetry, often reciting his work against a bebop backdrop (slyly alluded to here in the eccentric swing during the opening moments of “Showtime”). A debilitating back injury kept him away from public engagements for most of his life, and he spent more than a decade bedridden before his death in 1972.

Hollenbeck immediately thought of singer Kurt Elling to give voice to these poems – wholly unaware that Elling is something of a Patchen aficionado. “Kurt is a scholar with this stuff,” Hollenbeck says. “He knew Patchen and knew exactly what to do. He’s amazing.”

On his own recordings, Patchen recites his work in a gruff monotone; Elling, on the other hand, inhabits these poems as an actor would a role. On “Showtime,” he welcomes listeners with the bold enunciation of a television emcee; he lurches through “Opening the Window” with an intoxicated stagger; and he recounts the menacing absurdities of the surreal “Job” with dueling voices: his own and a blue-collar Chicago accent, transforming the piece into a duet of narrator and character.

Surprisingly, Hollenbeck discovered that engineer Andy Taub was also a Patchen fanatic, with his own collection of the poet’s works. It was his idea to alternate Elling’s two readings. “He was really into the material and was blown away by the way Kurt was reading the poems,” Hollenbeck recalls. “More than your average engineer, he was really involved in the creative process.”

Vocalist Theo Bleckmann, probably Hollenbeck’s most frequent collaborator, was also enlisted to lend a dreamier, more song-like atmosphere to several of the poems. “Theo has a very gentle, open, vulnerable approach,” Hollenbeck says. He uses that voice to stunning effect on “The Snow Is Deep On the Ground,” which conjures the image of swirling snow and the crystalline hush of a fresh snowfall on a still morning.

Two of the session’s three instrumental tracks were commissioned by the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival and inspired by the Scottish island of Islay, renowned for its wintering geese. “Mates For Life” unfolds with a rich narrative progression, while “Flock” lives up to its name with a frenzy of percussive fluttering.

As on their previous CD, Royal Toast, the Claudia Quintet is again supplemented by a +1, in this case Philadelphia-based pianist Matt Mitchell, a member of saxophonist Tim Berne’s Adobe Probe who has collaborated with the likes of Ravi Coltrane, Ralph Alessi, Mark Helias, Ari Hoenig and Josh Roseman. His virtuosity and spontaneity make him a perfect fit with the long-running core group – Hollenbeck on drums, Drew Gress (Tim Berne, Ravi Coltrane, Fred Hersch) on bass, Matt Moran (Slavic Soul Party, Mat Maneri, Ellery Eskelin) on vibraphone, Ted Reichman (Anthony Braxton, Marc Ribot, Paul Simon) on accordion, and Chris Speed (Bloodcount, Yeah No, Human Feel) on clarinet and tenor sax.

Shaun Brady

What Is The Beautiful?

A collaborative jazz/poetry affair that proves to be a piece of vital, living art.” – Daniel Spicer, BBC


“Augmented by pianist Matt Mitchell, the record is a meeting between the knotty compositions of drummer John Hollenbeck and the poetry of the late Kenneth Patchen, whose work influenced the Beats. Though Hollenbeck’s arrangements are as evocative as ever in crafting a lush maze of percussion, accordion and woodwinds, Patchen’s words remain on equal footing with the help of Theo Bleckmann and Kurt Elling.” – Chris Barton, LA Times


“John Hollenbeck continues to astound as a composer, prone to value accessibility as much he does adventure, on the fascinating What Is The Beautiful? “ – John Murph, Downbeat