Claudia Quintet’s John Hollenbeck on Discovering Kenneth Patchen and Finding Homes for His Works

December 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Celebrating their 15th anniversary in 2012, Claudia Quintet embraces the textural freedom of electronic sounds and improvisation, the structural ambition of contemporary classical music, and most importantly, the joy of bodacious grooves and unapologetically gorgeous melodies. Led by drummer and composer John Hollenbeck, this ensemble features some of the foremost innovators of new sounds in “jazz and beyond.” Their beautifully seductive work recasts jazz in shimmering new shapes with inflections of classical minimalism, new music, progressive rock and post-rock. Claudia Quintet’s latest release, What Is The Beautiful?, featuring special guest vocalists Kurt Elling & Theo Bleckmann, is a tribute to the late beat poet and visual artist Kenneth Patchen, commissioned by the University of Rochester on the occasion of his 100th birthday.

How’d it come to be that these folks in Rochester enlisted you to make an album around Patchen’s work? How did they find you, or you them? What had been your knowledge of/relationship with Patchen’s work prior to that?

I got a call from Richard Peek at the University of Rochester library who told me that for Kenneth Patchen’s 100th birthday they were doing an exhibition of his verbal & visual work—paintings and drawings, covers for records, books. Turns out there’s a patron of the University who’s a jazz lover and was keen to fund a recording of some kind. So they asked me if I wanted to get involved, and I thought it would be a really interesting project for the Claudia Quintet, so I went for it. I started working about a year ago, over the holidays. I couldn’t find any Kenneth Patchen books in the bookstores, so I went to the library filled up on everything he did; there’s also a good biography out there, and that helped. When I found something that hit, I’d write that down, and I ended up with a list of 20 or so poems. His work varied but there were at least five  genres that he was working in, and I take a cross-section of those. That’s how it started coming together.

What in particular are the challenges in setting poetry to music? Did you work with Theo & Kurt on the compositional side, or did you compose alone then hand them the music & let them work magic in their singing of it?

I think the problem can be one of balance: which element should be at the forefront, showing the poems in different ways—sung, spoken, whispered, repeated, in unison with the band, over the band, under the band—and so on. Poetry people always want to hear the poetry, the music people don’t want the poetry to usurp the music—it’s hard to please both aesthetics.
Kurt recorded his recitations before I wrote the music, so I wrote around his readings of the poems. There’s lotsa challenges there, but I think it was successful. Theo’s songs were tweaked with the band, and although we played them live once before we recorded them, this was definitely  a “studio” album. Many tunes were played for the first time in the studio and put together in the studio.
Given that you’ve got (at least) three very different and different-sized groups at hand who will play your compositions, how do you go about determining what compositions will be played by which group? Can you tell at the inception of an idea, ‘OK, this will work best with the LE,’ or ‘I want to hear this with Claudia,’ etc? 
Sometimes I know ahead of time. Sometimes I try it will different groups and it is usually obvious. Theoritically any idea should work for any group…In the case of JHLE versus Claudia-it is usually the case of scale. Some pieces work best in an intimate, chamber, looser environment—claudia. Other pieces love to be set on a grander scale, or become better through the power of more “weight”, more density, more layering.
I wrote a tune originally for claudia called “john edwards” written for the then presidential candidate who I liked at the time (big mistake!). It was “ok”, but then I arranged it for JHLE—also “ok”,but different. Then last year, I found the “right” place for this piece. I arranged it for the ONJ-adding a trumpet melody and calling it “Falling Men”-my Grammy nominated piece. It was a long journey to find the right home for that piece.
Claudia Quintet appear at Cornelia Street Café on December 16th & 17th at 9&1030pm. Visit or call 212/989-9319 for reservations. 

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