Jazz critic Whitney Balliett famously called jazz "the sound of surprise," and while the Dave Holland Quintet certainly had plenty of surprises up their sleeves during Saturday night's performance at the Sheldon Concert Hall, the show also served to demonstrate the virtues of familiarity within the context of a working band.
Holland has been developing variations on this small-group concept for more than a decade, and the current lineup has been in place for several years. This continuity means that the musicians know each other and the material very well, and are able to delve deeply into the nuances of each composition. In particular, the band's frequent use of odd meters, as in "Lucky Seven" and the 11/8 "Full Circle," seems completely natural, with each musician having fully assimilated the underlying pulses so that the music grooves effortlessly.
The pairing of trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Chris Potter offers a different set of timbral possibilities than the more typical front line of trumpet and saxophone, and the two are able to maintain distinct sounds even when working in the same register. Given their extensive experience playing together, they're also able to improvise simultaneously without getting in each other's way, as they did to good effect on the opening "Step To It". Eubanks and Potter also demonstrated several times the ability to slip seamlessly from improvised material into written lines and back out again, adding an elusive quality to the thematic statements.
Steve Nelson's vibes and marimba provided a chordal backdrop more transparent than a piano or guitar, but also were engaged in a ongoing dialogue of cross-rhythms with drummer Nate Smith. Nelson's solo on "Full Circle" was especially good, building tension with a series of eight-note licks before doubling up on the tempo and really letting fly. He's perhaps the least demonstrative of the quintet, but in many ways, Nelson is the glue that holds the whole thing together, and his composition "Go Fly A Kite," also served as a fitting encore, sprightly and concise.
Holland's bass took the spotlight on the intro to a new tune called "Veil of Tears" and he soloed effectively throughout the evening, but, ever the team player, he also handled much of the time-keeping function, freeing up Smith to explore various cross-rhythmic strategies. Smith is especially good at exploiting all the tonal resources of his kit, using sticks, mallets and hands on the cymbals, heads, rims and sides of the drums to produce a wide variety of effects, some very subtle. His control of dynamics and the level of fine detail in his playing were impressive, and his duet with Holland on "The Whirling Dervish" was both musically substantive and a crowd pleaser.
Chris Potter is considered one of the rising stars in jazz, and on this evening he did not disappoint, delivering twisting, extended tenor solos on the opener and on his own composition "Vicissitudes." While some of his lines on the latter recalled the late Michael Brecker, reportedly an important influence, Potter's playing overall was remarkably free of cliche, and his energy level never flagged. On a new tune called "Easy Did It"* that was dedicated to the people of New Orleans, Potter switched to soprano sax, and he and Eubanks together briefly evoked memories of Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy's modernist takes on traditional jazz before veering off on their own paths.
Holland's group doesn't offer many easy points of entry for the casual fan; their music relies on odd meters, elliptical forms, and advanced harmonic concepts, and thus may prove difficult for those accustomed only to traditional song forms and 4/4 swing beats. Their music demands active listening, and even then the information flow is so dense that it can be daunting. Still, while a few concertgoers at the Sheldon left after intermission, the vast majority of the mostly-full house stuck around until the end, rewarding the band with a well-deserved standing ovation. On this evening, the Dave Holland Quintet fully lived up to their reputation as one of the top small groups in jazz.
(The Riverfront Times' Ryan Wasoba also reviewed Holland's concert, and you can read his reactions online here.)
*Thanks to bassist/blogger Bill Harrison of Jazz Underneath for his comment supplying the correct name of the tune dedicated to New Orleans. You can read Bill's review of the Dave Holland Quintet's concert Sunday night in Chicago here.