John Hollenbeck & Claudia Quintet / by Evan Shay

I recently had the opportunity to photograph this amazing show for John Hollenbeck. His project called Claudia Quintet, consists of Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Red Wierenga on accordion, Matt Moran on vibraphone, Drew Gress on bass, and of course John Hollenbeck on drums. They have played together in this formation for 18 years, which is evident in the cohesiveness of their sound. Everyone is a unique and expressive improvisor, yet their individual voices make this music come alive. 

Chris Speed is easily one of my favorite musicians.  He has so much honesty, fire, and sensitivity in his playing. I photographed his band Endangered Blood back in June, which was one of the best shows I have seen all year. His sound is never overly loud, but is always full and present.  He plays on some recordings that are very influential for me, including some work with Jim Black and Human Feel.

Hollenbeck is a master planner and composer.  Watching him on drums, you can follow his decision making of where to come in, what texture is appropriate, how does this fit contextually, etc.  He improvises like a composer.  Everything is very precise and controlled, while producing a wide array of moods and textures.

Drew Gress has such a beautiful sound and improvises so thoughtfully. He always knows exactly where he needs to be in the ensemble's sound.  It is no wonder that he has an extensive discography as a leader and sideman with many heavy hitters.

During the masterclass at McGill, Matt Moran said he tends to avoid transcribing vibraphonists, and spends time learning solos from other instruments. He wants to avoid sounding like a vibraphonist, and this approach was apparent in the show. He used bows and toys to change the sound of the vibraphone, and played blistering lines up and down the entire instrument.

I guarantee you have not heard the accordion played in the way Red Wierenga approaches the instrument.  He finds so many twisted chord voicings and the way Hollenbeck writes for the ensemble caters to this ability.  He also builds DIY analog synthesizers, electronically equipped pianos, and his own software creations in Max/MSP. Check out his website.


Claudia Quintet feels like anything is possible, in both improvisation and composition. This freedom is so fresh and intriguing, appealing to listeners both intellectually and emotionally.  Be sure to check out their latest record "Super Petite," which is an excellent example of the group's dynamic together.  Thanks to L'OFF Festival de jazz de Montréal for putting on this incredible double bill with Thom Gossage's band.  It was a memorable evening of creative music!