Dave Holland Quintet: The Razor’s Edge (ECM 1353)

Dave Holland Quintet
The Razor’s Edge

Dave Holland bass
Steve Coleman alto saxophone
Kenny Wheeler fluegelhorn, trumpet, cornet
Robin Eubanks trombone
Marvin “Smitty” Smith drums
Recorded February 1987 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Still reeling after seeing Dave Holland in a recent intimate performance with Jason Moran, I find myself going back to the fresh directions he explored on ECM with one of his finest outfits: the Quintet. As its third album for the label, The Razor’s Edge is all the more important for being reedman Steve Coleman’s last run with the group before his travels took him elsewhere on the path to musical geomancy. He joins Holland with the usual suspects: trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith (of, among countless other projects, Jay Leno Tonight Show Band fame).

The Quintet is as dynamic as ever in this seminal outing, which finds Eubanks and Coleman in particularly fine form. The trombonist gives us some early traction against Holland’s skittering delights in “Brother Ty,” while that unmistakable alto trades places with soulful insights in the more pensive “Vedana.” Next is, if the reader will indulge me, the title cut, which opens with Wheeler against a delicate rhythm section before releasing a tremulous solo from Eubanks. Coleman flies off a half-pike of big band sound, a raging flare of virtuosic wonder at the mouthpiece. Holland pauses for reflection in “Blues For C.M.,” only to drop the anchor with a gorgeous and unassuming theme. Coleman dominates again, bringing a slower heat this time around as he fills each available nook and cranny with his golden tone. An all-too-brief response from Eubanks brings us down into “Vortex.” Holland proves the early bird, opening to the full band with Coleman at the helm of yet another engaging vessel. And out of sparkling breath comes a muted Wheeler, hurling a pitch to Coleman at bat. Tracks like this are hard to beat, each a hefty dose of wonder and logic rolled into a ball of fun. After a couple of slow swings, Smith kicks us off into “Figit Time,” in which Coleman excels right out the gate. He is, like the album as a whole, a house aflame, threading every hot potato of a needle passed his way. The invigorating drum work in this masterpiece makes it alone worth the price of admission. This is life on jazz.

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Fraying the Thread: Dave Holland Quintet Live Report

Dave Holland Quintet

April 18, 2010
Buckley Recital Hall @ Amherst College

Dave Holland bass
Robin Eubanks trombone
Steve Nelson vibraphone, marimba
Chris Potter alto and soprano saxophones
Nate Smith drums

As a graduate student with limited time and financial resources (a redundant statement, if ever there was one), I find that going to live shows has become all too rare a luxury. Lack of a car further constrains my options, and so I am deeply appreciative of the musical opportunities that a college community brings to the hermetic academic. Where else could I have experienced the wonders of Zakir Hussain, stumble upon a free performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and bask in the sounds of the Dave Holland Quintet for less than the price of a good dinner, all within a three-week period?

The venue for the latter was a packed Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College. And while the space didn’t seem at first particularly suited for a quintet of such explosive caliber, a few knob-turnings from the sound technician worked out the kinks soon enough. After a brief introduction, Holland and his crew took the stage. The man himself offered a quip or two to an eager audience before jumping right in.

“The Balance”
The opening bass line was pure Holland: a mixture of delicate highs and thrumming lows that set the tone with unmistakable immediacy. Through this freshly strung loom, vibes, soprano sax, and trombone strung their own vivid threads. The group began by scaling up the improvisatory ladder with practiced precision, holding fast to a tight core of unity while venturing just close enough to the edge to gauge a drop to certain doom. A trio of drums, vibes, and bass provided solid ground for the horns, with ample room to roam. This led into an artfully performed passage of more staid harmonies before Eubanks broke free, jumping nimbly through invisible hoops as he dyed this mosaic with a guttural ferocity that was as viscous as it was effervescent. Just as the tension rose, Smith brought his drumming to a halt, stopping and starting playfully, paring down the music to a variant trio. With full support from bass and drums, Nelson loosed a barrage of half notes that shimmered like a hailstorm in sunlight. The horns returned on the heels of a violent drum kick, which soon relaxed into a head-nodding interplay of rim shots and hi-hat, bringing the ensemble down for a slow and easy landing.

Next up was a tune from the latest Octet CD, Pathways. An extended and soulful bass solo lulled the crowed into an intimate silence. Holland’s fingers made the lows sing, milking the amp for all it was worth, while his highs fluttered like wings. Just then, our rapt attention was broken by a cell phone, which Holland simply smiled away as Eubanks placed a hand on his chest and mouthed, “It’s not me.” Before long, Smith picked up the beat, ushering the others into more distinctly composed material as alto sax and trombone leaped across rim shots and cymbal rides. Potter’s first major solo of the evening began tentatively, as if he were putting out his feelers before releasing a modest joy. Bass and drums kept pace like a fast-moving train. Suddenly, the mood changed, and I felt like I was in a dingy nightclub rather than an immaculately kept concert hall. Smoke billowed in the darkness with every turn of phrase. Potter let out the occasional impassioned screech, each strategically placed amid clusters of glistening notes, then moved into a series of sustained tones over a spate of superb drumming. This paved the way for a ferocious solo from Smith, who elicited nothing short of gunshots from his snare. Yet Smith also proved his finesse with a delicate splash of cymbals, to which Holland added a few lobbing glissandi, before locking into a full-fledged groove. Holland eased his way in, ushering the theme’s return, which was then picked up by Potter. The group ended with a staccato burst in triplicate.

“Souls Harbor”
Holland broke out his bow for the opening lines of this Potter number before Nelson and Eubanks began hanging a series of triads from the composer’s smooth lead. Vibes asserted themselves with a bass-like steadiness. Holland swapped bow for fingertips and plucked his way out of a fluid intro. Potter and Eubanks laid out the main theme in perfect unison. After splitting into two-part harmonies, they rejoined as a single voice against Nelson’s ostinato. Eubanks’s emergent solo was one of the evening’s most idiosyncratic, sounding like a foghorn yearning to sing its woes across the waters. As the music gathered speed and energy, laced with incredibly dexterous runs, vibes crept along the cove with their slow return. Potter’s reappearance made for some subtle harmonization before Smith cracked open a livelier beat. At this point, Potter and Holland wandered off into an abstract, but strangely lyrical duet. To this question, Smith and Nelson had an expansive answer, fraying the thread of their overall sound into its determinate strands. Potter’s sax screamed, making its voice known above the din even as it parsed itself. And before we knew it, everyone was back into thematic material, closing in solid agreement.

“Walking the Walk”
This newer composition began in a solid triangle of bass, drums, and vibes. With the entrance of the horns, we were treated to a mélange of moods before settling into an arid sound, opened even wider by Nelson’s gorgeous four-mallet stylings. This was the vibraphonist’s time to shine. With the barest shades of the opening proclamation, he tread confidently in familiar territory and receded as Holland took the cue. The shuddering high notes, resplendent vibrato, and rumbling lows of Holland’s solo filled the space with the instrument’s deepest possibilities. All the while, Smith relegated his playing to the rims. Sax and trombone once again took center stage and ended in a paroxysm of beauty.

Holland’s quiet count kicked off “Secret Garden.” Hot off Critical Mass, this tune continued the dune-laden dynamics. It was at this point that Nelson finally turned to the massive marimba at stage left, lending a certain organic flair to the overall sound. With the theme dispensed, Holland and Smith rode easy to let the light of Eubanks break from behind the clouds. Eubanks stretched his breath to its limits, occasionally singing into the trombone for a chorused effect. Smith, meanwhile, tore a page from the Joey Baron handbook and drummed with his hands. Soon, it was just Smith and Holland for the latter’s brief solo turn, singing upward as the horns and vibes reinstated the path upon which they first led us in this taxing yet scenic journey. A flickering strand of bass and marimba brought us to our destination.

Last on the menu was “Step Tunes,” another new piece that showcased the quintet at its most blistering. After a brief blast from the horns, Nelson took over with some incendiary support from Holland and Smith. The brass returned, and presaged the most stellar solo of the evening from Potter, which brought thunderous applause from the crowd. Nelson was left to pick through the aftermath and find still more to salvage. His notes ran up and down with the abandon of a child at play, letting the occasional sustained note ring through the body. The return of Eubanks and Potter was almost anticlimactic after such inspired displays of joy. After a concise drum solo, the musicians converged and, with a glance from Holland, fell back into the center.

The audience wasn’t about to leave it at that, and cheered for more. Thankfully, dessert came in the form of “Easy Did It,” a short but sweet encore dedicated to the city of New Orleans. And indeed, it was like mashing five jazz clubs from The Big Easy into one delectably harmonious confection. The quintet blossomed with a soulful theme, punctuated by a couple of low blasts from Eubanks and painted with broad strokes from Potter, whose penultimate cries on soprano signaled the winding down of the evening’s song.

In its current incarnation, the Dave Holland Quintet is an unstoppable force. Seeing them live deepened my understanding of their relationship and their process. Holland’s bass lines are like supremely fashioned entities whose entire physical makeup is as taut as the strings that tell their life stories. He smiles, eyes slightly squinted, and leans into his bass with the lilt of a conductor’s baton. Eubanks plays with closed eyes, his entire body rocking into the balance of every piece. Smith is constantly looking up, as if to let his drum kit whisper and shout of its own accord. Nelson dances left and right, navigating the broad terrain of his instrument with the deftness of a boxer. Potter’s approach is rather different, as nonchalant as it is utterly embodied. It’s as if he refuses to lock himself into any motif for too long, more interested as he is in finding out what awaits just around the corner. He is always turning and weaving through the crowd of his musical ideas, pickpocketing whatever interesting tidbits he can along the way and exhibiting them with minimal mitigation. I also enjoyed seeing how the musicians performed as a group, sometimes leaving the stage or standing off to the side when they weren’t needed, coming back at just the right moment to an unspoken signal. Their synergy was complex without being complicated.

The quintet’s compositional astuteness was also clearly evident. These were far from the concise ditties that characterize so much of what constitutes jazz in the mainstream. Rather, they were (with the sole exception of the encore) 10- to 15-minute epics of form, freedom, and style. Theirs is beautiful, heart-wrenching music that stands firmly in tradition even as it thinks over the horizon. Their sound is rich, evolved, and never content to type itself. Although Holland has, with the founding of Dare2 Records, deviated from his 34-year stint with ECM, he nevertheless carries with him that same communal spirit instilled in him through his seminal work with the label. He is always about dialogue, even when playing alone, for jazz is nothing without response.