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.