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Dave Holland Quintet at Birdland, April 20, 2010

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Dave Holland Quintet
Birdland
New York, NY
April 20, 2010

The Dave Holland Quintet (DHQ) is one of those rarest of things in jazz—a working group. These days, due to a number of factors (cough$$cough), jazz musicians are spread very thin in terms of the number of projects they participate in. They jump fluidly from project to project, sideman gig to leader, studio to club. Frequently they don't even have time to rehearse before a gig with musicians whom they've never played with before. Luckily, there is a standard jazz "language," and these musicians are consummate professionals, so there is always a common ground to be found. However, it's rare to find a band that explores its own chemistry as deeply as, say, Miles' second quintet.

The Dave Holland Quintet has reached that level. Listening to the DHQ, together now for the better part of a decade, the difference compared to other groups is palpable. For one, the well of tunes that they can choose from each night is almost limitless given that everyone in the band is a serious composer in his own right. Each musician knows his bandmates' tendencies and keeps perfect pace. The best way to describe it is that this band knows each other's ins and outs so well that they can concentrate fully on the exploration of the music without worrying about the musicians playing it.

And the musicians themselves are at the top of their respective games. Holland's tone is remarkable, and the only other bassist I know of who can sing through his instrument like Holland can is Christian McBride (not coincidentally the Christian McBride Band, recently on hiatus, is also one of the best working bands in the business). Nate Smith is the perfect foil for Holland on drums—his sense of rhythm keeps even the most knotty of Holland's compositions danceable. On this night Smith drove the danceability even to the point of outright funk on "Lucky Seven" with its entrancing bottom riff.

Smith is saxophonist Chris Potter's partner in crime in yet another working band, Potter's Underground, a dirty funk ensemble with a jazz sensibility (read my review of their latest, Ultrahang (2009, ArtistShare), here). In the DHQ, Potter reigns in his funk tendencies in favor of muscular yet melodic blowing that can be alternately beautiful and haunting. His looong solo on "The Eyes Have It," the first tune of the set, never once stepped outside the changes, while his composition "Soul's Harbor" was played passionately by the entire ensemble, living up to its ominous title.

Trombonist Kevin Eubanks is remarkable—very few artists can bring that instrument to the frontline as prominently as Eubanks can. His solos, as always, were consistently inventive and exploratory. He was featured most often in this set, taking extended solos on "Soul's Harbor" and "Lucky Seven."

Vibraphonist Steve Nelson was content to lurk in the shadows, only taking a single solo turn, but was nevertheless omnipresent, especially in his silence. Holland has almost never worked with a pianist, preferring to walk the road less traveled with vibes or guitar (the sole recent exception being his sextet's Pass It On (2008, Emarcy)). And Nelson is unique in his brand of support, using quick, sharp accents to provide counterpoint to the soloist.

The trademark of the DHQ is its extended codas, with both Potter and Eubanks improvising over an extraordinarily muscular rhythm section. The listener can be swept away by the music and taken on a turbulent ride up over mountain peaks and down to the depths of the valley. These exceptional moments of musical communication were frequent on this night, and in fact the entire set was quite loose. Maybe it was the laid-back, smoky atmosphere at Birdland, or the crowd of cognoscenti that you would expect late on a Tuesday night, or maybe the significance of the date, but the band seemed to be in the mood to explore. And explore they did, to the contentment of all involved.

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