Royal Toast, the most recent release by the innovative small jazz group The Claudia Quintet, doesn’t need me to rave about them; they’ve been getting a lot of well-deserved praise for the album already. But it belongs in this conversation because, more than any other album that I’ve heard this year, it beats Mehldau at his own game.
As some of you have pointed out, most of these CDs that I have written about this week are hard to compare to Mehldau’s latest project — they have different aims, different sounds, different frames for understanding the music. I don’t think Trombone Shorty, for example, will be applying for a Chamber Music America grant any time soon (although I would LOVE to be on that selection committee!)
Mehldau’s record, with its overt orchestral borrowings and dark, brooding ambiance, is clearly taking himself very seriously. After all, he’s got to show something for the fact that he’s this year’s Carnegie Hall Composer-in-Residence. The result is a high-minded, high-budget affair that fits perfectly for a big-budget arts institution like SFJAZZ, J@LC or Festival Productions.
Musically speaking, Royal Toast excels by all of those same standards, only Hollenbeck’s group manages to imbue them with a playful vitality that Highway Rider seems to be missing. Furthermore, Hollenbeck manages more timbral intrigue with a six-instrument palate (Chris Speed on woodwinds, Matt Moran on vibraphone, Drew Gress on bass, Hollenbeck on drums, Ted Reichman on accordion and Gary Versace as a special guest on piano) than Mehldau and Brion manage with seemingly unlimited resources.
Suffice it to say that I can’t wait to hear what this eccentric ensemble comes up with next. I can’t think of many better models for how to create innovative, exciting jazz in the 21st century.