As one of the most critically acclaimed small ensembles in jazz, the Dave Holland Quintet is remarkable not for its virtuoso players or cleverly designed, thought-provoking original compositions, although it certainly has both of those in ample amounts. No, what makes Holland’s band really stand out is the group’s cohesion, developed over years of working together. Their performance during the second set on March 15, 2007 at Jazz at the Bistro was a vivid demonstration of the potential power of a true working band, an entity that’s become increasingly rare in a time when so many jazz projects seem to be all-star one-offs, tribute albums, or groups full of young apprentices backing a famous leader.
What came from the Bistro bandstand on Thursday night was a spirited conversation among equals. As a bassist, Holland has been considered an important musician since he emerged in the late 1960s as a member of Miles Davis' band, and he’s gotten even better over the years, playing with a big sound, rock-solid time and fast reflexes. Holland may have made his name playing music variously labeled “avant garde” or “experimental,” but what can be overlooked sometimes is that he’s also a great groove player. During this set, Holland kept the music firmly anchored, which in turn freed drummer Nate Smith to mix in textural effects, double- and half-time feels, and a lot of other embellishments that, in lesser hands, might have disrupted the flow, but in this case added another layer of interest. Although Smith is the most recent addition to the Quintet lineup, having replaced Billy Kilson last year, he drove the band with absolute authority, showing off some very impressive chops in the process.
Trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Chris Potter are both longtime members of the Quintet, and over the last decade, both have developed reputations that place them among the top tier of players on their respective instruments. Eubanks built a nice solo on the opener, “Last Minute Man,” and also shone with an extended workout on his own composition “Full Circle,” forging ahead with gusto through the winding chord changes while Holland and Smith worked variations on a funky 6/8 beat that, at one point, sounded a bit like the Weather Report classic “Boogie Woogie Waltz”. Potter delivered some nice asides and obbligatos throughout the set, finally getting an extended solo on the closer “Free For All,” and he made the most of it with a tenor ride that suggested the influence of masters like Trane, Sonny and Michael Brecker without directly aping any of them.
Mallet percussionist Steve Nelson’s marimba and vibes provided the harmonic foundation for the soloists, as well as percussive counterpoint to the drums, and the use of these instruments where most bands would deploy piano or guitar helps give the Holland Quintet a distinctive sound. Nelson (pictured) was featured this set on his own composition, “Amator Silenti,” which began as a noirish ballad in the genre of Monk’s “Round Midnight”. Contrasting fleet solo lines with tart, ringing chords, Nelson started the tune on marimba, then moved to vibes. He was supported at first by deep tones from Holland and some fine brushwork from Smith, who then kicked it into an uptempo swing feel, with Eubanks and Potter soloing simultaneously and Holland’s walking bass urging them all on. The group interplay was outstanding throughout the set, with plenty of dynamics and the sort of spontaneous, momentary discursions that happen only when a group of musicians really know and trust each other.
Another thing that makes these guys fun to watch is that, although they take the music seriously, they were clearly having a good time, too, with lots of eye contact among them all and the leader grinning frequently when pleased by something he heard. Holland also injected an unexpected note of levity into the proceedings when, unable to read his chart for “Full Circle,” he delayed the song first to send Potter upstairs to look for his glasses, then to borrow a pair of readers offered by an audience member, all while cracking jokes about not having memorized the tune yet. It was a charming reminder that while he and his colleagues may be world-class musicians, they’ve also got human frailties and foibles
It’s too bad the economics of the jazz business these days seem to work against the long-term stability of small ensembles, because the music could use many more bands with the collective spirit, skill and musical integrity of the Dave Holland Quintet. If you’re any kind of fan of modern jazz, you've got until tomorrow to get down to the Bistro and check them out before they leave town.