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Dave Holland Quintet

Van Dyck Restaurant & Brewery
Schenectady, NY
December, 16, 2005


It's rare that you see an artist or a group at the peak. If you're lucky, you catch them on the way up; usually, you reach them somewhere on the downward slide. Otherwise, you chart their course from disc to disc and hope they're on their game if they come to your area. After listening to the phenomenal 2-disc set Extended Play: Live At Birdland (ECM), I was convinced Dave Holland and his longtime cohorts - reedman Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibes player Steve Nelson, and drummer Billy Kilson - had reached that peak.

Well, four years after that recording, the Dave Holland Quintet rode that peak into the Van Dyck and blew us all away with performances and material as hot as what passed on that three-night gig in 2001. Other than a change in the drum chair (Nate Smith replaced Kilson, hired by Smooth trumpeter Chris Botti to provide some trad-jazz cred), the conditions on Extended Play were in full force throughout the night. More on those conditions in a moment.

“A warm reception on a cold night,” Holland said appreciatively to the whooping standing-room-only crowd. As the band arranged itself on the minuscule stage, Holland explained they were going to use this date to put a last polish on new material they were taking into the studio Christmas Week; the bearded, bespectacled double bass player (who looks nothing like the long-haired kid who played with Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight Festival) would admit later that some of the pieces were still untitled. By the crowd's reaction, the musicians could use binary language to name their tunes, and the audience would still lap it up.

With approval acquired, approximately 90 minutes of heaven commenced with “The Eyes Have It”, a Holland composition dedicated to his granddaughter Sarah, and which leads me to the first condition: The DHQ is not just a platform for Holland's musical ideas. Almost everybody had a composition played, and you'd be hard-pressed to pick out whose work was the best. Each tune isn't necessarily a platform for the author, either; while Holland and Potter lead the group through the establishing choruses of their respective works, they didn't always have the lead solo. Eubanks took that role more often than not.

Second, the multi-layered melodies and machine-gun-fast time changes this band does without breaking a sweat reminds me of Kris Kristofferson's best line in the movie Songwriter: “Do you deliberately make it hard on yourself just so you can stay interested?” If you asked the DHQ that question, they'd probably come back with a resounding “YES!” Two of Potter's tunes - “Vicissitudes”, and a three-part untitled piece - were ideal examples of this syndrome of complexity. I was sitting with members of the Joey Thomas Big Band, and when I asked them what time signatures the band used on a particular tune, I was met with helpless shrugs and blissful smiles. The closest musical comparison would be the Nefertiti phase of Miles' second great quintet, which is rich with multiple time changes…

…except for the third condition from Extended Play: The DHQ has a sound like no other group, past or present. It comes down to simple substitution - Eubanks' trombone for the traditional trumpet, and Nelson's vibes in the role of piano. Eubanks can (and does) match Potter note for note, both in chorus and point/counterpoint dialogue. While other horn/reed units engage in this sort of musical badinage, the growl of Eubanks' horn links with Potter's amazing reedwork to form a singular harmonic I dare you to find anywhere else. Nelson (who looks like a shaggy Spike Lee, and who bobs-and-weaves like a prizefighter as he plays) provides the same lead lines and fills of a piano, but the chiming of the vibes gives his work (and the resulting tune) an otherworldly resonance. Holland's quality foundation allows Smith to go far beyond the role of timekeeper, letting him drive and fill with cymbals, blocks, and any other noise he can generate.

I've seen legendary bands - the Modern Jazz Quartet, the “classic” Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond - but (like I said in the opener) they were well past the peak of their collaboration. If the Dave Holland Quintet isn't legendary yet, they should be, and they are a creative force with a seemingly limitless future. I got to see them at their peak, in a small club, and it was my present to me. This is the best Christmas ever.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.