The Claudia Quintet

Composer John Hollenbeck performs his 9/11-inspired album in full at The MAC

Ever since the tragic events of 9/11, every song that composer and percussionist John Hollenbeck has written has been a ‘September Song’.

Hollenbeck, founder of the influential avant garde band the Claudia Quintet, was in an artists’ retreat in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York on September 11, 2001 when he heard news of the attack on his native city.

He immediately wrote a reactive piece entitled 'September 12th (Coping Song)’, which appears on his new album, suitably entitled September, all of which he performs during the Claudia Quintet’s masterful concert at The MAC.

Hollenbeck tells a large and appreciative audience during the performance – the band’s first in Ireland – that the 9/11 attack had a profound effect on him. Since then, he has composed all of his music in September. 'I came up with this idea because I have that date imprinted in my head,' he admits.

All ten tracks on the album depict a different date in September with another title in brackets. Each song is like a tone poem, telling a story, establishing a mood or expressing a political insight.

The first track in the band’s two-hour Belfast concert is 'September 17th (Loop Piece)'. On the album track, a man’s voice is heard to say ‘In hindsight’ over and over again, accompanied by a shimmering, melodic soundscape of vibes, accordion and clarinet.

But this gig takes place just two days after the 50th anniversary of the death of John F Kennedy, and in tribute, the quintet adds the looped phrase ‘At 1pm central standard time, two o’clock eastern standard time’ – a nod to the famous announcement of Kennedy’s death by an emotional Walter Cronkite.

Hollenbeck likes to reference important events in American history in his music, and another piece entitled 'September 29th (1936 ‘Me Warn You’)' features the lofty tones of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, talking about his New Deal programme to lift the US out of the Great Depression.

This is another piece with phrases repeated on a loop, and FDR’s anachronistic, patrician voice combined – with the modern, electronic ambient music – produces a dramatic, eery effect. The piece would not feel out of place as a video art installation at the Tate.

Hollenbeck informs the audience that this particular speech came up a lot during the last presidential election: 'He (FDR) was saying that politicians just say what they need to say to get elected. It’s a simple message but a good one.'

The Claudia Quintet was formed in New York in the late 1990s, and has gone through a range of personnel since then. The latest incarnation of the band features Red Wierengs on accordion, Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor saxophone, Dre Gres, acoustic bass, and Matt Moran on vibraphone.

All are perfectly in tune with Hollenbeck’s vision of avant garde chamber music that blurs the boundaries between jazz and classical, and is at once cerebral and accessible. Hollenbeck is one of the world’s great drummers, endlessly inventive and also a composer of great passion, skill and humanity. He is able to express a wide variety of moods, from joy and exultation, sadness to despair.

His final piece, 'September 9th (Wayne Phases)' is a tribute to the great octogenarian soprano saxophone player Wayne Shorter, possibly jazz’s greatest living composer. It is a ten minute-long piece full of dramatic changes in tempo, furious free jazz sax phrases and the fastest accordion and vibe playing you are ever likely to hear.

As the audience calls for more, Hollenbeck and his band play what he describes as the perfect encore piece – two and a half minutes of punk jazz entitled 'September 20th (Soterius Lakshmi)' – named after two presenters on public radio.

'It is my version of a public radio theme song. It is good for those who want an encore and because it is short, it is good for those who want to leave,' Hollenbeck jokes. It is fair to say that not too many people take the opportinity. This is a concert of exquisite musicianship, humour and intelligence.

Visit The MAC website for information on upcoming concerts and other events.