Dave Holland Big Band: Philadelphia, December 11, 2010

Dylan McGuire By

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Dave Holland Big Band
Painted Bride Art Center
Philadelphia, PA
December 11, 2010

Bassist and jazz music legend Dave Holland says he is a believer in the communal spirit of music and, judging by the scope of talent in his Big Band—as well as the enthusiastic capacity crowd at his shows at the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia on Dec. 11—the community is happy to embrace his vision.

Although it only makes a few appearances a year, Dave Holland's Big Band has two Grammy Award-winning albums under its belt, and features a virtual "who's who" of top-flight jazz professionals. Holland—who is perhaps best known for his collaborations with greats such as Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny—makes the perfect bandleader for this all-star cast with his easygoing British manner, and his emphasis on making sure that all 18 members of the band have an opportunity to shine.

"Compositionally, the Big Band offers a lot of choices about instrumentation and orchestration. There is more focus on the rhythm of the music. In the smaller group there is much less written material and there is more focus on improvisation," Holland said in an interview prior to the show. "Everyone [in the Big Band] has an opportunity to present himself as a soloist and the cast of personalities is quite extraordinary."

Holland, who has been on the road with his quartet and quintet recently, took a break from his relentless touring schedule to play at the Painted Bride and also to serve as an Artist-In-Residence at Philadelphia's High School for the Creative Arts and Performing (CAPA), where he mentored young jazz musicians for three days.

Holland kicked off the set with the brooding mid-tempo "Triple Dance," off his What Goes Around (ECM, 2002), fueled by the bassist's ostinato groove, drummer Nate Smith's lively ride cymbal work, and Craig Taborn's vibraphone-like stabs on Fender Rhodes electric piano. It was immediately obvious that this rhythm section is a powerhouse and its energy was instantly contagious to both the audience and the rest of the band. Holland's booming bass tone spoke with authority and provided a solid core for the big band, yet never overwhelmed or dominated. Surprisingly, Holland would only take two solos the entire night, holding true to his promise of letting his band members all have their time in the spotlight.

Smith was equally impressive, delivering a near athletic performance behind the kit, and effortlessly laying down complex rhythms and fills with a flowing sense of groove. His timing and feel were impeccable, and his dynamics extraordinary, breathing life into the smallest, quietest beats, and then building and exploding. The combination of Smith and Holland is something that any jazz aficionado should witness live.

Baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan was the first soloist, blending in with the deep groove and hitting floor-shaking notes that brought visible smiles to the rest of his band mates. The rest of the band made its entrance during his solo, blowing complex lines and harmonies, and demonstrating a small piece of Holland's immense talent as an arranger that the audience would continue to savor throughout the performance.

Smulyman was followed by a wildly passionate solo from alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, who delivered rapid fire licks that burst forth over the band. The rhythm section pulled back and let trumpeter Alex "Sasha" Sipiagin weave a tasteful tapestry around the band. The tune ended with simultaneous improvisations by the song's featured soloists, a pattern that would be repeated throughout the night.

Next up was "Last Minute Man," which Holland jokingly dedicated to a member of the band who he said would remain nameless. The funky, odd-time signature rhythm led to one of the most memorable melodies of the night, before opening into a profound solo from trombonist Robin Eubanks that drew shouts from individual audience members, followed by a soaring trumpet solo from his brother, Dave Eubanks.

The audience was then treated to Holland's first bass solo of the night. Holland has an uncanny ability to keep the groove going non-stop, while flying all over the fingerboard of his double-bass, almost as if there were two musicians playing. He left no doubt that he is a true master of his instrument.

The band then launched into "Bring It On (The Monterey Suite, Part 1)," off the Overtime (Dare2, 2005), a powerful ensemble piece with a strong bebop feel. The horns weaved harmonically complex lines, while the rhythm section seamlessly shifted between what seemed to be an endless variety of grooves and feels. Altoist Mark Gross took the first solo, delivering a blistering array of runs and arpeggios over an increasingly complex backdrop from the band before returning to the main theme. The second soloist was from trombonist Jonathan Arons, skillfully building to the song's climax.

Next up was "Ario," which Holland described as a "musical portrait of the great city of Rio De Janeiro." Using the musical colors available to him, the bassist drew a picture of a town that lives over the constant pulse of the ocean, while beautiful ocean breezes blow through the sensual cityscape. It was possible to picture the curtains of an open window blowing apart to reveal a magnificent view of the ocean when the muted trumpets entered, hearing the waves of alto and baritone sax breaking casually on the beach below. The song featured solos by tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and trombonist Josh Roseman.

The last song of the set, "Free For All (The Monterey Suite, Part 2)," opened with an extended solo from Holland, who reached out into more melodic territory, building soaring lines and sweeping arpeggios over open strings, before launching into the song's syncopated groove. The masterful Gross took another solo, as well as Taborn, who played a largely subdued role throughout the night. Taborn's solo was magnificent and he took on the quickly changing progression with ease. The band then dropped out and there was silence, as Smith began to build his drum solo. Starting with a light shuffle on the snare, he gradually brought in cymbals and bass drum, with lightning fast rolls and fills culminating in a huge crescendo as the band entered for its final statement. The audience leapt to its feet at the conclusion, and the band departed the stage.

Unlike some musicians who are willing to rest on the accomplishments of the past, Holland has proven that he is constantly learning and evolving, and seeking to take his jazz to new heights. As the enthusiasm over his Big Band performances proved, there is still an audience that's ready to go in whatever direction Holland's muse will take him.

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