Dave Holland with Robin Eubanks
New England Conservatory, Jordan Hall
March 25, 2008
The relationship between jazz and the academy is often a contentious one: professors trained in the classical tradition are reluctant to give wiggle room to jazz pedagogy, and jazz musicians frequently see their work as beyond the restrictive approach of theory. New England Conservatory, located in the heart of Boston, draws a neat line between these camps: its jazz department takes itself seriously enough to be on par with the best in the conservatory world, and its graduatesincluding Cecil Taylor, Luciana Souza and John Medeski testify to the quality of its programs.
So when Dave Holland and Robin Eubanks performed a set at NEC's Jordan Hall on Tuesday night, the noteworthy musicians were wearing several hats at once. Most significantly, they were recognizable for their long history of working together in the well-recorded Dave Holland Quintet and Big Band. But to certain members of the audience, Holland and Eubanks served as representatives of the Conservatory: the trombonist is on faculty in the Jazz Studies department, and the bassist is currently a Visiting Artist-in- Residence. Underlying these roles as performers and teachers, however, was the fundamental fascination that both men share with the continued exploration of their instruments and their music. It was through this avenue in particular that they shined during the duo performance.
The pairing of trombone and upright bass is atypical. No percussion for consistent rhythm; no guitar or piano to give a harmonic foundation. After all, any small group risks sounding less like jazz chamber music and more like rootless wandering if the members don't appropriately cover their tracks. But these two musicians seemed to embrace their exclusivity as an ensemble. Especially with the expansive acoustics of Jordan Hall, Holland and Eubanks frequently bowed to the "nakedness" of the sound.
During Holland's solos, for instance, there was nothing but bass (Eubanks supported him only by playing chord tones briefly on their last number), making the music vaguely reminiscent of Holland's daring solo album Ones All (Intuition, 1993). And as a result, even the slightest technical flaw was readily apparent to the audience. When Eubanks' tone crackled or his timbre was lost in breath, the result was amplified. When Holland's fingers did not hit every sixteenth-note in a descending line, the listener could tell. Yet the honesty of this performance only cast in bold relief the high caliber of musicianship.
In addition to the curiosity of hearing only instruments that normally play subordinate roles to high- register horns, the audience had the added treat of observing both men explore the capacities of the bass and trombone in unconventional ways. After the initial two tunes, "The Winding Way" and "Down Time," Eubanks obviously had warmed up to the sound and the room, employing Semitic scales and pentatonics on "Bedouin Trail" to play with challenging multiphonics (a technique wherein a trombonist sings an overtone of the note he plays, thereby making a two-note chord audible). Holland also recast his technique throughout the night, using frequent high-register chords and more circular, vamp-like shapes than walking lines.
Equally interesting was the way Holland and Eubanks rearranged tunes for duo performance. There was a strange fascination in the way "Prime Directive" and "Bedouin Trail," recorded live at Birdland by Holland's quintet on Extended Play (ECM, 2003), remained faithful to the earlier versions yet sounded foreign and fresh on the present occasion.
The evening rose to its peak with the penultimate tune, a rendition of Wayne Shorter's "House of Jade." Once again, a full-group arrangement was pared down to its simplest, most direct form. Eubanks introduced the song with another virtuoso intro, and then played a brilliant solo that seemed to utilize every facet of Shorter's original composition. Nothing was lost in the translation and distillation of songs to this unusual instrumentation: even the hollowness of the sound was an active element that Holland and Eubanks used with unstinting grace.