During the 1980s jazz was still recovering from the decimation that had taken place the previous decade. The vast wasteland and dead-end streets that fusion and "lite jazz" had left was beginning to turn a tide with the renaissance movement being ushered in by Wynton Marsalis. Unbeknownst to only a select jazz crowd, bassist Dave Holland was nailing solid mainstream jazz to the wall with the great series of albums he would lead for ECM, beginning with 1983's Jumpin' In. Working with such masters as Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, and later with Kevin Eubanks, Holland would leave a smoldering trail of classic albums in his wake.
The proceeding is to suggest that while the jazz world is indeed grateful for Holland's continued prominence and regular recording activity, somehow his most recent affairs just don't seem to have the same freshness and titillation as we seemed to find in such gems as Seeds of Time, The Razor's Edge, and Extensions. Of his most recent ECM dates, Prime Directive is certainly the strongest of the lot, but it too can suffer at times from a nagging sense of one-dimensionality. The opening title cut is indicative of Holland's modus operandi, with lots of dense collective improvisation over a bass vamp before yielding to a string of individual solos. "Looking Up" throws everything into the pot, starting with an odd-metered head that eventually settles into a waltz tempo, only to then be spelled by an up swing tempo in four.
Clearly vibraphone/marimba man Steve Nelson is the ringer here, as he advances a stability and subtle harmonic movement to an artistic selection of originals by Holland, Robin Eubanks, Billy Kilson, Chris Potter, and Nelson himself. The rich and "woody" timbre he lends on marimba melds beautifully with Holland's deep bass, abundantly so on the lively "Jugglers Parade." Of course, Potter and Eubanks get in their dibs as well, effortlessly retorting passages during the middle section of "Wonders Never Cease."
Drummer Kilson has struck this reviewer as a curious choice since his first induction into the Holland band. Obviously more of a funk and fusion drummer than a mainstream jazzer, he can at times overplay. Maybe Holland finds this quality akin to "Smitty" Smith's style, but somehow the latter just seems to be a more musical player. Putting reservations aside though, this is probably Holland's strongest band since the early ECM quintet. And in addition, there's no doubting the authenticity of the music presented here, it's just a bit long- winded in spots.
Prime Directive, Looking Up, Make Believe, A Seeking Spirit, High Wire, Jugglers Parade, Candlelight Vigil, Wonders Never Cease, Down Time (76:42)
Dave Holland- bass; Chris Potter- soprano, alto, & tenor saxophones; Robin Eubanks- trombone; Steve Nelson- vibes & marimba; Billy Kilson- drums
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