Claudia Quintet featuring Theo Bleckmann

The Blue Whale


Better than…Theo Huxtable.

The Blue Whale was filled to the brim last night for New York's Claudia Quintet performing works from their most recent album, What is the Beautiful?, a tribute to the late poet Kenneth Patchen. With hipsters from all stages of life, the room was buzzing with anticipation for a rare appearance by this long-running band. The addition of Theo Bleckmann made things even better.

Bleckmann is an amazing vocalist, something like a German Bobby McFerrin minus the body drumming. He is capable of filling a hall with sounds both soothing and guttural. In the context of his set with the Claudia Quintet, he worked exclusively as a team player, working wonders to create a cohesive band sound, blending in with their unusual instrumentation perfectly.

The set opened with Bleckmann and bassist Chris Tordini locked in unison, as Bleckmann recited Patchen's “Show Time (Soon It Will Be).” With each pass through the poem another member of the band joined the melodic recitation, before launching into a solo of their own. Vibraphonist Matt Moran struck his instrument like he was throwing a baseball. Saxophonist Chris Speed built his staccato honk slowly but surely.

The second tune opened with Moran bowing the bars on his vibraphone, reaching unexpected hums through his unorthodox technique. Bleckmann and pianist Red Wierenga entered in a legato unison. The band slowly built upon these strange resonances until Bleckmann, with help from his voice processor, began to loop his voice into humanly unreachable pitches, both high and low. The ethereal build enraptured much of the audience before it quietly faded towards a saxophone solo. That brief moment of bliss would mark Bleckmann's high water mark for the set. I could have listened to it for hours.

Eventually Wierenga switched over to the accordion, forming a small huddle of a band. Bleckmann, Speed and Moran twirled in unison over drummer/composer John Hollenbeck's subdued brushes. Bleckmann again turned to his processor, transforming the band into an oscillating hybrid of the Fifth Element and the Modern Jazz Quartet. With Wierenga's slowly pumping accordion resembling high woodwinds, Moran's vibes trembling like strings and Hollenbeck's tuned bells hovering behind it was hard to tell where all the sound was coming from. Every musician but Bleckmann was locked in a stoic frown.

For the final tune the band ventured away from their most recent album to play “Just Like Him” – a thumping closer that had many heads bobbing. Bleckmann channeled Harry Belafonte being chased by bees with his “ohs” and “ahs” buzzing wildly, while Speed cut loose on his clarinet. The band closed awash in overtones with all but the drums implying pitches upon pitches upon pitches.

Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet is an impressive ensemble. Their years of collaboration have helped them develop a telepathic sense for what works and what doesn't. Bleckmann inserted himself seamlessly which was impressive and a little frustrating for many of the vocalists in the crowd who came for some larynx-generated pyrotechnics. But few can deny the beauty of their combined powers.

Personal Bias: I have been attending promoter Rocco Somazzi's events since I was in high school. Although he has left us for the East Bay, it is nice to see that he still has visitation rights down here. Don't forget about us, Rocco.

The Crowd: People who use “dig” in every day sentences. You dig?

Random Notebook Dump: Nobody in the band is named Claudia, but there are five members. That doesn't seem right.

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