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Culture Watch: The Claudia Quintet +1, ‘What Is the Beautiful?’

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The Claudia Quintet + 1, ‘What Is the Beautiful?’

(Cuneiform)

Music and spoken-word collaborations can be problematic, especially in the world of jazz. Though the passionate creation in both disciplines can be complementary, sometimes the results clash, leaving listeners either wishing that guy in the beret would hush for a minute or those musicians would take a break so we can focus on what’s being said.

But this isn’t a problem on the latest from New York’s Claudia Quintet. 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.

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While Bleckmann’s otherworldly voice lends an ethereal quality to tracks such as ‘The Snow Is Deep on the Ground,’ Elling nearly steals the record with his trademark baritone. Burrowing into Patchen’s words with sly gravity and wit, Elling adds a working-class patter to the twisted work parable ‘Job’ and taps into his inner Tom Waits with a stumbling slur on ‘Opening The Window.’ The meeting reaches its peak on the title track, which features Elling and the band slowly gathering power with each recitation of Patchen’s calm command, ‘Pause. And begin again.’ When the results are this good, by all means.

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— Chris Barton


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