Dave Holland Quintet: Critical Mass

One of the top bands in jazz today sends out another zinging-great record.

Dave Holland Quintet

Critical Mass

Contributors: Dave Holland, Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, Nate Smith
Label: Sunnyside
US Release Date: 2006-08-29
UK Release Date: 2006-08-29

Dave Holland's bass playing and his bandleading share a central characteristic: they both bring focus and pleasure without squelching the sense of adventure that keeps jazz a living, youthful music. On his very first release in 1972, Conference of the Birds, Mr. Holland teamed up with three players from the music's avant-garde wing (Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, and Barry Altschul) to make a recording of clarifying beauty. Nearly every recording since then has done the same -- allowing the most exciting players of the time to climb aboard the leader's unerringly melodic basslines for rides that combine both sensational thrills and broad appeal.

Today's Dave Holland Quintet stands pretty-well astride modern jazz, a near perfect compromise between all the music's best impulses. Beginning with a series of unerring small group records for ECM in 1983 (including Jumpin' In, Seeds of Time, and The Razor's Edge), Mr. Holland has been forging tunes and groups that melt together Mingus and Blakey with a healthy dose of freedom. The core of the group -- Holland's acoustic bass, Robin Eubanks on trombone, and Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba -- has been together for a decade. Chris Potter's saxophone voice has been central to the group for nearly as long -- with only drummer Nate Smith being a newcomer to the dazzling new release, Critical Mass.

Straight out of the chute, this disc gives you a healthy dose. "The Eyes Have It" is a complex but utterly sunny theme built on a typically bobbing-and-weaving bass pattern. The tenor and trombone never play straight parallel lines, instead weaving in and out of alignment -- Mr. Eubanks often sliding down to double the bass. Mr. Smith's rattle-splash drums groove around it effortlessly, releasing the soloists to sprint the tune's chords like the Olympians they are. But -- in what has become the quintet's trademark -- the return of the theme is followed by a feverish dialogue between saxophone and trombone. Mr. Potter and Mr. Eubanks are brilliant -- a couple of young cougars chasing each other every which way until the band seems about to spin right off the compact disc and into the air itself. When the theme startlingly reappears, your exhilaration is complete.

Among the strengths of this band is the fact that every member contributes outstanding compositions. Chris Potter, whose own records should not be overlooked, contributes "Vicissitudes", an irresistible stop-start arrangement that lets everyone charge forward. Potter's initial solo on tenor is unerring modern jazz -- drenched in post-bop harmony as the band slowly increases the heat beneath him, but then spinning well past the standard restrictions as Nate Smith gets more aggressive. As sharply gruff when overblowing as he is strong in the horn's lower register, Potter seems more and more like as unassuming tenor giant.

The less celebrated members of the band get a superb workout on this same tune. Nelson's statement on vibes begins by playing the melody in unison with the bass, before the horns restate it -- a good sense of how this band (like most) is really built on its rhythm section. But his improvisation is revelatory, using both long held tones that take advantage of the instrument's unique tonal qualities and sharp patterns that feature odd intervals. Smith gets to solo over bass-and-vibes patterns, showing a tight control of his powerful polyrhythmic impulse.

Mr. Smith's contribution, "The Leak", is built on patterns of six, and it has a funky ease that lets the whole band saunter and strut. The explosions of chords at the end of each six-pattern underlines why the vibes are such a great choice for this band: they provide harmonic guidance and color, but seem to do so in the least restrictive way possible, with the chord more like atmosphere than a stack of notes. Mr. Nelson is used to great effect on Mr. Holland's "Secret Garden", a vaguely Eastern theme that asks the mallets to dance gently like a folk instrument underneath the other sounds. On the tenor sax statement, Nelson sounds like a kalimba, delicately puttering beneath Mr. Potter's soft melody. "Amator Silenti" is Nelson's tune, and it murmurs to life over bowed bass and a simple vibes melody, cushioned by the horns, providing the band a tranquil place from which to... freak out. The tune morphs into a pure free improvisation, which then gallops into a collective improvisation over a super-fast walking bass, leading us back to the gorgeous ballad theme.

Perhaps the most consistently remarkable member of the band is Robin Eubanks, a trombonist who joins the instrument's two histories -- the J.J. Johnson legacy of precise bop playing and the line of atmospheric, growling players who date back to New Orleans. His tune, "Full Circle", contains what amounts to a funk vamp for acoustic bass, and the band works it out as if they were remaking Bitches Brew, but with James Brown in the studio. Mr. Eubanks's own solo is a trombone master class, playing every which way including a blowing technique that allows him to play "double stop" harmonics. He turns the unwieldy horn into a snare drum in other places, so precise and sharp are his attacks and technique.

On the third or fourth listen, Dave Holland's Critical Mass is still one of the most rewarding records of the season -- a dose of fiery precision and exposed heart from one of the music's greatest band leaders.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.