If Dave Holland ever tires of being mentioned only as the young English bass-player recruited by Miles Davis in the late ’60s, then he does not let it show. In fact, he remains one of the best sources of information about that groundbreaking era. Holland, of course, was an integral part of those jazz-rock experiments, whose influence still resonates and whose popularity seems to be undergoing a revival. Even so, it all happened 30 years ago — and it’s not as if he has been exactly idle in the interim. The immediate post-Miles period produced some of the last great free-jazz albums where, finding himself in the company of the likes of Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton, he began to show himself as a composer, as well as a soloist, of some substance. Then began his long association with ECM, countless albums (including some key ones with Steve Coleman in the eighties) and a steady climb to a currently unassailable status as the most highly respected bassist in jazz.
It has been a successful and award-strewn career — albeit one kept well-hidden the high walls of the cognoscenti. Yet, wonderful musician that he is, his main contribution to the current scene is probably in his role as group leader. Indeed, not a few critics are of the opinion that his present line-up is the premier jazz outfit of our time. Comparisons with Ellington and his old mentor, Davis, are often made. This is hopeful and perhaps heretical thinking — but there is no doubt about it — Holland heads a class act. For three or four discs now, it has produced music which, if not as boundary-pushing as might be expected, is as assured and satisfying as anything in Holland’s past or anyone else’s present.
This particular quintet has become a very stable unit. Each member is individually expert but the whole manages to be even greater than its gifted parts. This is partly due to extensive touring time but credit must go to Holland as the man in charge. Under his direction each player is allowed plenty of elbow room but with a definite awareness the coherent group sound is what counts. The style is state-of-the-art post-bop with funk, Latin and jazz-rock flavours. The latter are used more as allusions and palette-aids than central features. This is not a fusion set even though its reference points are wide. Tactically, the emphasis is on anything that accentuates interplay and group dynamics. Hence counterpoint, call-and-response, choruses and hooks all hold the many solo flights together. Surprisingly, we are talking Jazz here, there are hardly any passages where the virtuoso tips over into the self-indulgent.
Apart from Holland, whose solid, percussive bass just never lets up, the musicians are Chris Potter (saxes), Robin Eubanks (trombone), Steve Nelson (vibes-marimba) and Billy Kilson (drums). No single figure hogs the limelight but, as the set is nearly 75 minutes long, all get more than enough chance to shine. Potter is a lively reedsman, at his most effective when in more delicate, Eastern mode. Eubanks is the opposite. He is in his element when things gets earthy and aggressive. Together they make an ideal pair. I have a softness for marimbas but make no apologies for singling out Nelson’s contribution as the session’s finest. Weighty but always melodic, on both instruments, he does not rush and understands tonal patterns perfectly. He reminds me of a more muscular Bobby Hutcherson. Kilson brings a funk and jazz-rock flamboyance to the show but does not sacrifice precision in so doing. This group is tight — endlessly inventive — and, when required, kicks like a mule.
The total band strength is best exemplified on the two longest tracks, “Global Citizen” and “What Goes Around”. These are high-octane affairs, utilising post-’60s freedoms while respecting the value of shade and structure. Live, these must be overwhelming. Alongside them, and by way of contrast, stand two exquisite ballads. “For All You Are” is a lovely Mingus-Ah-Um type piece and a superb exercise in sustained mood. “Go Fly a Kite” is more exploratory and features some serious horn work over a divine melody that composer Nelson rides to the full. Of the other numbers, only “Billows of Rhythm” seemed a little pointless. On the other hand, and as an unexpected treat, the twisted funk of the title track is probably the greasiest, hip-shaking thing ECM has ever put out. (OK, I admit that’s not too hard.)
Actually, the ECM connection matters. If, like me, you associate the label with all that is clever but too contemplative by half, Not for Nothin’ should be a salutary warning to your (and my) prejudices. Make no mistake, it swings, struts and sways in all the right places. And, at every twist and turn, the formidable Holland is there, relentlessly driving the music forward. There is nothing here that will surprise anyone who has heard Prime Directive — this set’s predecessor — but it is, if anything, more easily confident. The younger players are all improving and their leader is certainly not in decline. As for the material, there have been more distinctive compositions, but everything is handled so well that it hardly matters. Best Jazz Album 2001? — no, but pretty close. Best Small Group 2001? I don’t see why not.