Monday, January 26, 2009

Concert Review: Dave Holland Quintet at Mandel Hall 1/25/09

What an inspiring pleasure it was to experience Dave Holland's wonderful band last night. Playing to a packed and enthusiastic crowd at the University of Chicago's premier concert venue, the Quintet demonstrated why it has garnered such a great worldwide reputation.

I've been a fan of Holland's for well over three decades, but I've never been more impressed with any of his ensembles. With the exception of drummer Nate Smith, this group has been together for 10+ years. It takes that kind of time to develop the musical empathy and kinship that is evident in this band. There's a level of listening and group dynamics that goes far beyond the norm for jazz groups. It is the kind of group communication one can hear in the recordings of Ellington's band, the first Bill Evans trio, Coltrane's classic quartet, Miles quintet from the early 60's and very few other bands.

Each player is a virtuoso in his own right. Robin Eubanks (trombone) and Chris Potter (saxophones) each possess prodigious technique and a strong musical personality. Both horn players have contributed some cool tunes to the book, a couple of which we had the good fortune to hear last night. Vibist Steve Nelson has developed into a masterful accompanist as well as a powerful soloist with a wry sense of humor. Nate Smith had to fill some pretty big shoes when Billy Kilson left the band, but he has proven to be a worthy addition. He's got great groove, sensitive ears and doesn't overplay, even when the music is at its most intense. Dave Holland is not only a great bassist, but has established himself as one of jazz's unique master composers and band leaders.

For more insight into Holland's career, check out the piece I wrote for a few months ago.

Rather than give a tune by tune review of the concert, I'm going to describe what makes this music work so well from my perspective. First of all, Holland's group concept is very democratic. While it is clear that it is his band (he gets the gigs, pays the cats, writes most of the material, etc), there is more than ample room for every musician to express himself. Unlike so many mainstream jazz groups, the Quintet puts the emphasis on ensemble playing rather than operating only as a collection of soloists. So many jazz players seem to be in a hurry to get to their own solo, seldom thinking about the composition as a whole. This band functions much more like a true ensemble, where the players all contribute to collectively shape each piece.

Holland arranges the music with a careful ear for orchestration and soloistic balance. Each tune features one or two musicians as soloists; various players lay out at different times. We got to hear Nelson and Smith play as a duo on How's Never; Potter and Holland teamed up without the others on another tune. The leader laid out a few times, allowing Smith and Nelson to play behind one of the horn soloists. These players all seem to revel in supporting one another, something I don't see or hear often.

The Quintet works with unusual song forms and meters. It seems like a matter of principle that Holland almost never walks straight 4/4 quarter notes. This group is quite comfortable with compound meters like 5 and 7, and with mixed meters. They make these thorny rhythmic underpinnings feel groovy and natural - so much so that the ease with which the group handles these complexities makes one forget the odd meters altogether.

There's a terrific sense of playful give and take with this band. These musicians are generous with one another, as they are with their audience. I've barely mentioned the high level of skills and chops these players possess. That may be because, despite their ability to execute both complex and subtle ideas, there's very little "showing off" or grandstanding in evidence when they play.

Finally, a word about the audience at this Dave Holland Quintet concert. I was thrilled to see such a large and sophisticated crowd, and even more delighted to see how many young folks were there to hear this music. I'm sure there were a lot of musicians present, but I didn't overhear much technical talk on the way in or out. This leads me to believe that a decent percentage of the attendees were interested "civilians", perhaps the same kind of folks who turn out for jazz festivals and gigs at Symphony Center or the Jazz Showcase. Even if the music might be too harmonically, rhythmically or texturally "advanced" for some people, I think the integrity and playfulness of the group is contagious.

After the last tune of the set, the crowd jumped to its feet and roared for an encore. Holland quipped that we were "very persuasive", so the band played another tune. I'm sure it was just another gig for them, but for those of us fortunate enough to be listening, it was a special night.

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