In recent years, Dave Holland’s band has been like a middle-aged waistband — expanding. His long-standing quintet shifted into a sextet featuring Mulgrew Miller on piano, and Pass It On (2008) was the latest in a string of unerringly solid Holland discs which proved that the bassist’s roomy, propulsive tunes worked just as well with a larger, more conventional band.
Now Holland has chosen to record an octet that mashes together the two bands. It includes five horns — Alex Sipiagin’s trumpet and Antonio Hart’s alto sax (both from the sextet), Robin Eubanks’ trombone and Chris Potter’s tenor sax (from the quintet), topped off with Gary Smulyan’s baritone — plus the Steve Nelson/Holland/Nate Smith rhythm section of the smaller group. The result, of course, is weightier than the earlier bands, bottom-heavy and expansive in the ensembles, and thick with brilliant, contrasting soloists. Holland explains that this band is meant to recall the small Ellington groups that “evoke the sounds of a big band or create the more intimate sound of a small group”.
Pathways is the recording debut of the octet, and it mostly sounds like a small group, if a deliciously contrapuntal one. The brassy swagger sounds less Ellingtonian than it does Blue Note-ish, with the five horns allowing for more conversation and crossing melody lines. Even though Nelson’s vibes tend to give Holland’s music a more open feeling than is typical in mainstream jazz, the harmonic clarity in writing for eight voices makes this one of the least edgy dates of the leader’s career. But that’s just fine, because Dave Holland’s writing avoids formula and never sounds generic.
Part of the fun of Pathways is in hearing some older Holland tunes in a new context. “How’s Never” debuted with the Gateway trio (on 1995’s Homecoming) and has been played often by the quintet. Here it seems perfect for a larger band, taking on a funky, stabbing groove that takes advantage of the range of horns. “Shadow Dance” first appeared on Jumpin’ In (the first quintet album) and then got a big band treatment on What Goes Around. Here it is raunchier and sprawling, setting up delicious polyrhythms between Nelson and Smith over which the horns paint the melody in deep tones before things surge forward with keen swing.
What with Holland being a bass player, he clearly understands what a strong deep voice can do for a band. The title track gives prominence to Smulyan’s baritone saxophone, who crafts a powerful lower line that rumbles beneath the sunny, main melody. “Blue Jean” is a ballad that also sets the baritone beneath the other horns, this time in a gentle sway. Sipiagin plays a solo with creamy flow — light and substantive at once, like a good dose of Art Farmer was on his mind that evening. Nelson solos on marimba: sharp and woody and truly like little else in mainstream jazz.
Certainly, then, this is a Holland band with an embarrassment of improvisational riches. Chris Potter is easy to take for granted these days, what with the consistent thrill he provides to so many bands. Here again, he is just a little more amazing than you might credit him for. His composition “Sea of Mamara” has a wholly original arrangement, pairing high tones and low tones unusually and setting up cascading lines that seem classical in tone. His soprano saxophone solo is gut-wrenching rather than clever or pretty — a hard-nosed melodic exploration that we hear so rarely on the small horn.
Robin Eubanks gets a prominent solo on “Ebb and Flow”, and he reminds us that his sometimes-cumbersome vehicle is a 12-cylinder Ferrari in his hands. He plays with a boppish fluidity not heard much since J.J. Johnson left us, but his lines are more modern and more purely rhythmic. Holland’s own solo on “Ebb and Flow” is jaw-dropping and similarly fluid. It is a rare example of a bass solo that can be sandwiched between horn solos and never lets the heat of the band diminish.
And this band is hot. Pathways is designed to make this clear, as it was recorded live at New York’s Birdland club. The tracks are long — all but one over nine minutes — and give every player a chance to stretch out intelligently. On the close of “Ebb and Flow”, the whole band improvises collectively on a smoking out-chorus, and you can taste the sweat on every player’s (and probably every listener’s) brow.
Dave Holland is a bandleader who gives you heat but also gives you intrigue. However driving the music becomes, it remains drenched in invention. Sipiagin’s orignal, “Wind Dance”, winds a gorgeous flute arpeggio through its horn arrangement, for example. Your foot may be tapping, but you’re thinking too. This is music that balances head and heart, toes and brain, just right.
In 2010, jazz is “art music” most certainly — no longer available for dancing in the culture at large. On a good night, a jazz club may be full of devoted fanatics but rarely folks who just want to let themselves go. But Dave Holland has a way of keeping alive the legacy of propulsion in the music, even as he makes his art utterly smart. Jazz is lucky to have him, and Pathways reminds us that jazz is still thrilling in more than one way.