Music for Nineteen Musicians
This album marks a major event in the jazz world: bassist/composer Dave Holland decides to lead a big-band project for the first time. Okay, so to most of us it doesn’t sound like much, and I can’t even spruce it up by namedropping famous crossover artists, because young lion saxophonist Antonio Hart and rebel trombone dude Josh Roseman are about as sexy as the special guests get. But making a big band work has nothing to do with “star power” and everything to do with hard work. Too conservative, and everyone will yawn; too out, and you’re a Sun Ra wannabe. Very few bandleaders have pulled off successful big bands in the last fifty years or so, so points right off the bat to Holland for even trying such a crazy thing.
And double points for making a fun listenable challenging record. His usual quintet (which includes vibist Steve Nelson, drummer Billy Kilson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and tenor saxophonist Chris Potter) is here augmented by 14 other musicians (no, I’m not going to name them all) who actually seem to understand and love Holland’s songs as much as he and his band, who have been playing them for years, do. That’s no small feat. These compositions swing in the most intelligent way possible. If you’re a fan, you’ll love the way new light is shed on the previous incarnations of each tune, but you don’t need to be familiar with Holland’s oeuvre to appreciate and dig everything here. You could just listen without thinking too much and still have a great time.
The first couple of songs seems a little too indebted in their arrangements and feels to the big band work of another famous bassist/composer, Charles Mingus. The solo passages in “Triple Dance” might as well be outtakes from the Mingus Dynasty sessions, and “Blues for C.M.” was a Mingus tribute already back when it came out in 1987. But Holland’s charts show flashes of originality too. The transition that sets up Eubanks’ trombone solo on “Triple Dance” is nothing short of gemlike, and it bodes well for the rest of the record.
Things only get more original and therefore better. “The Razor’s Edge” starts out like a Doc Severinsen jam for the old Tonight show, with Duane Eubanks’ trumpet work getting things started all lovely-like, and then turns lean and spiky for Nelson’s vibes solo. Roseman ends it with a typically witty solo turn, which emerges slowly from the by-now-Cuban-sounding groove and then takes over completely before giving way to a blistering composed ending. Holland is wise to feature youngsters like Roseman and Mark Gross alongside his band and canny veterans like baritone sax player Gary Smulyan, who contributes a couple of crucial honking solo turns.
One of those solos comes on the only new number, a song called “Uprising”. It is here that the concept shines brightest. On this piece, Holland’s band is wise and impetuous, crazy and controlled at then same time, just as if the proceedings are being informed by every style of jazz ever. Smulyan, who was working in the Woody Herman Big Band b back in the ‘70s, comes across absolutely correct with his solo. Then he hands over the reins to Alex Spiagin, one of the youngest members of the ensemble—but his fluid Milesian trumpet solo picks up right where Smulyan’s leaves off. Old, young, new, old. It’s all part of the big picture here, and it sounds both very be-boppy and very modern indeed.
What Goes Around doesn’t break any new ground. Holland sounds like he’s just learning this language and is content to make it sound good. But the two longest tracks on the CD show where this music could go in the future if Holland continues to apply himself in this style. The title track shifts back and forth between jazz-rock, “free” passages and more “dignified” big band stylings. (Meta track, everyone!) Chris Potter’s wailing tenor sax locks into a furious battle with Billy Kilson’s drum work, and this heroic pairing allows the rest of the band to sit out for a while before jumping back in with pointillistic style. Then there’s some mad beautiful cacophony, and another slick transition, and then Robin Eubanks gets to show what a quiet trombone can do before Kilson takes it out with two minutes of authoritative drum solo work.
Man, I was going to go into a whole exegesis about “the modalities of ‘Shadow Dance’ and how Hart’s sax and flute work are Impassioned Africa and how Holland’s bass solo is his whole career in a nutshell” and all that, but I’m going to spare you any further pretension. It comes down to this—the more I write about this record the more I want to stop writing about it and just listen to it again. So I’m out.