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Montreal Jazz Festival 2011

John Kelman By

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June 29: Dave Holland Quintet

Speaking of longevity and chemistry, the music world can often be a fickle place. Bands emerge to great acclaim, for breaking new ground, but as time goes on, interest wanes as the group settles into comfortable familiarity, "damned if you do, damned if you don't": criticized for staying true to its original vision, but equally lambasted for too much change. Fortunately, in the jazz world, that's less of a problem. Sure, groups emerge and have a period of greater visibility, but even when things settle down, they're often able to continue for the long term, and still create plenty of excitement, even if they're afforded less attention in the media.

The current incarnation of bassist Dave Holland's 14 year-old quintet has been around long enough now that even drummer Nate Smith (who replaced original drummer Billy Kilson) is no longer the new kid on the block he was when the quintet performed at Montreal's Outremont Théâtre in 2004. The quintet has released only one disc since that time, Critical Mass (Dare2, 2006), but it's remained at the core of both the Dave Holland Big Band, last heard on Overtime (Dare2, 2005), and the Dave Holland Octet's Pathways (Dare2, 2010). The excitement of a new sound and a new approach may be over, but based on the quintet's performance at Place des Arts' 750-seat Théâtre Jean- Duceppe, there's still plenty on offer from a group of players clearly at the absolute top of their game.

Trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Chris Potter are monstrous enough players on their own—each, a leader in his own right, with Eubanks' Live Vol. 1 a stunning set from his EB3 trio that would be impossible to believe, were it not for the DVD included, where it was possible to actually witness Kenwood Dennard playing keyboard bass and drums simultaneously; and Potter's Ultrahang (ArtistShare, 2009), another great set from his electrified and evolving Underground group. But the collective language these two players began honing with their first appearance together on Holland's Prime Directive (ECM, 2000) has only grown with time, their in-tandem soloing on the bassist's set-closing "Lucky Seven" (from Critical Mass), so absolutely energizing as to get the capacity crowd on its feet for an enthusiastic standing ovation, even before Holland announced that this was, indeed, the end of the set.

A set that the crowd was not ready to let go with just one encore, as Holland's "Easy Did It" simply kept the energy level too high to encourage folks to vacate the premises sated, as vibraphonist Steve Nelson's head-tilting harmonies interlocked with Smith and Holland's ability to create unshakable, booty-shaking grooves in any meter. The vibraphonist's balladic "Go Fly a Kite," from Not for Nothin' (ECM, 2001) sent everyone on their way on a more relaxed note.

A new piece, "Walk the Walk," opened the set, with Eubanks taking a first solo that set the bar high, but Holland raised it with a solo that saw the bassist more physically engaged than usual, lifting onto one leg as he pulled muscular lines out of the ether. Clearly this was going to be a good set for a quintet that may tour less regularly than in previous years, but whose chemistry remains intact, the way it does for good friends who may not see each other all the time, but pick up where they left off, when they do, as if no time has passed. Eubanks opened his own "The Sum of All Parts"—first heard on Holland's Pass It On (Dare2, 2008), a sextet album with a revamped lineup, with Eubanks the only holdover from the core quintet—with an a capella solo that demonstrated why he's Holland's trombonist of choice, his seamless integration of multiphonics creating compelling harmonics that, coupled with unerring accuracy and vocal-like tonalities, was another high point in a set filled with them.

Dave Holland Quintet, from left:
Steve Nelson, Dave Holland, Robin Eubanks, Nate Smith, Chris Potter


Nelson's a less overtly virtuosic performer, but Holland's expression said it all during the vibraphonist's solo on "Lucky Seven"—the epitome of economy, as he built a solo of gradually unfolding harmonic layers before Eubanks and Potter turned the heat up to full-blast. Potter's one lengthy solo of the set was as thrilling as ever—muscular, built on a foundation of motivic constructs that gave him latitude to build a solo of tremendous narrative value, even as he moved across his tenor's register with the kind of effortless aplomb that has made him one of his generation's most important players.

And Holland? With more solo space than usual (not that he's ever light on it, but he seemed particularly ready to play here), he not only made prefect use of the extra time to demonstrate an approach and tone that may be instantly recognizable, but is still (thankfully) an ongoing work in progress, as he pulls in his experiences in other contexts to continually build his own projects. How does a band get past its own reputation for breaking ground, to stay in it for the long haul? Well, according to the Dave Holland Quintet's exhilarating performance, it's equal measures commitment, mutual friendship and respect, and an ongoing search for new ways to mine the same context.

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