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Dave Holland at Chicago Symphony Center

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Dave Holland Octet
Dave Holland and Trilok Gurtu
Symphony Center, Chicago
March 24, 2006
The audience at Chicago's Symphony Center looked different than it has for this season's previous shows in its Jazz at Symphony Center series. While there were still plenty of the middle-aged subscription crowd, this crowd was younger, hipper and, between songs, more noisily appreciative. There were more of them, too.
That's because jazz has become cool, my wife explained in a matter-of-fact tone. I hope she's right, but my personal suspicion is that British bassist Dave Holland has quietly but very steadily ascended to the very highest ranks of jazz stardom—it's not the genre, it's the musician. In any case, one couldn't ask for a better bill than this double-Holland concert in which the North American debut of the Dave Holland Octet was paired with a duo set of Holland and Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu.
Gurtu and Holland opened the show with "The Whirling Dervish, a simple vamp piece in plain old 4/4 time—although the subdivisions and sub-subdivisions of counted time Gurtu created as he sat at his hybrid set of western and eastern drums really rendered any notion of regimented time signature largely moot. Here and elsewhere in the set, Holland stated an ostinato, then strayed from it, building solo lines against Gurtu's stunning hand-played tabla beats; his shifts from freer melodies to constrained grooves parallelled Gurtu's own rhythmic embellishments to create a sense of blurring, mutating form.

Holland's tune "Mazad began with a droning, mildly-vibratoed arco introduction from the composer against a hand-played cymbal and other percussion from Gurtu before Holland's plucked bass and Gurtu's drums pulled the piece into a pensive, spacious groove. Again, Holland's supplied the song's angular melody (stated with his characteristically impeccable intonation and full, singing tone) but also a good part of its tempo, which gave Gurtu plenty of freedom to embellish and dance around the pulse.

The pair's propulsive, polyrhythmic cover of Oregon bassist Glen Moore's "Three Step Dance was a model of tension and concentration as Holland stated the tune's ascending theme phrase before the tune culminated in an intense impasse of snare rolls and single-note, adamant bass. Gurtu's "Peace of the Five Elements was marked by surging tabla rolls that gave the song a sense of accelerando and ritardando tempo change—until one noticed that Holland's time was steady and that the actual time of the song was as well. The sense of dynamics was, real, however, and every gradation of volume (at times the two played very quietly indeed) was perfectly rendered by the Symphony Center's remarkable acoustics.

Holland's "The Secret Garden was the best of all; its double-stopped descending bass theme, and Holland's intricate, weaving melodic developments of that theme against Gurtu's sparse tabla accompaniment, created a sense of great distance and benevolent fate. A new piece called "Lucky Seven had some crowd-pleasing vocal chanting from Gurtu over a hypnotic one-two beat (partially supplied by the delighted audience) that was then topped by dazzling, simultaneous-note unison playing, abrupt stops and effortless starts included, from the two musicians.

Then it was time for the Dave Holland Octet, which was, depending upon your point of view, either a bulked-up version of the longstanding Dave Holland Quintet or a radically slimmed-down edition of the Grammy-winning Dave Holland Big Band. Here, the Quintet—Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, vibes/marimba player Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks and drummer Nate Smith—was augmented by altoist Antonio Hart, baritone saxman Gary Smulyan and trumpeter Alex "Sasha Sipiagin.

The band opened with a new Holland tune called "Pathways, and the five-horn frontline sounded great on the massed-horn ensemble theme—well, four of them did, as microphone problems effectively eliminated Smulyan from the mix for the first few tunes, as evidenced by his inaudible solo. A Holland solo over Smith's cymbals and Nelson's shimmering, characteristically economical vibes work (no marimba was on stage this evening) led into some pivoting contrapuntals from the horn line—very good writing.

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