The payoff of improvised music comes in the form of unspoken, unplanned climaxes born of highly evolved communication between disciplined musicians. These moments come in the form of well-placed melodies, unexpected texture changes and tension-releasing cymbal crashes. They materialize from the air and disappear just as quickly. Jazz musicians dedicate their lives to this highly specialized form of thrill seeking: the instantaneous composition of a piece of music that has never been played before and will most likely never be played again.
Few people understand the sanctity of these moments like bassist Dave Holland. In the 40 years since Holland appeared on Miles Davis' notorious Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way sessions, he has continually chosen the path less traveled for the sake of musical adventure. Collaborations with Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Bill Frisell and countless others have served to sharpen his approach of flirting with the avant garde while still connecting to the masses. As Holland plucked his unusually shaped upright bass last evening while fronting the quintet that bears his name, his face featured a grin so large that the Sheldon Concert Hall's stage could barely contain it.
Although the Dave Holland Quintet has been together for over twelve years, its lineup and instrumentation still raise some eyebrows. The chordal role (traditionally piano or guitar) is filled by vibraphonist Steve Nelson. Many jazz aficionados dismiss mallet instruments for their lack of expressiveness and inability to "swing," but Nelson's shimmering percussion adds a futuristic edge to the quintet. Trombone is another instrument rarely seen in modernistic groups, but Robin Eubanks' liquid phrasing and unmatched technique made the listener forget that the instrument is a complicated mechanism of frumpy tubing; melodies seemed to melt from the bell of his horn.
Holland has a history of giving opportunities to young musicians and drummer Nate Smith, the newest member of the group, showed the youthful energy of a musician being given his first big break; Smith simply played his ass off. Saxophonist Chris Potter is a more established player, but can surely relate to Smith's excitable position -- Potter was Holland's wunderkid a mere decade ago.
The quintet's original material is a unique and complicated affair. Time signatures alternated frequently and unison patterns were rhythmically deceiving. The group approached these potentially dangerous tunes with expert control and flawless execution, performing backflips over the hurdles set forth in its compositions. Attempting to count along and catch every time change would have sucked the enjoyment out of the group; in a strange way the complexity of writing added to the accessibility of the group, forcing the crowd to enjoy the music on a more visceral level. In this way, Holland kept the spirit of Bitches Brew alive without creatively backtracking.
Solos were long and allowed the players to stretch out for extended periods of time. Robin Eubanks impressed early with his virtuosic fluttering on the New Orleans-inspired "Easy Gift," while Potter shared his impressive Michael Brecker-meets-Ornette Coleman chops on the same number. Steve Nelson switched from vibraphone to a full-sized marimba for the intense first set closer "Lucky Seven," a song on which he made up for his instrument's lack of subtlety with Coltrane-esque harmonic U-turns.
Nate Smith treated his drum kit like a sugar-buzzed kid in the world's largest candy store. He seemed to view each drum as a smorgasbord of sonic possbilities. He played exclusively with his hands on the bass-and-drums duet "The Whirling Dervish," treating his snare drum like a conga, smacking the shell of his rack tom and rubbing his fingertips on drum heads. His dynamic range was incredible; during the quietest part of "Dervish" I could hear my neighbor tapping his foot and during his vamping solo on "Lucky Seven," I contemplated putting in my earplugs. Holland himself took the spotlight for a gorgeous unaccompanied solo at the introduction to "Veil of Tears", a slow dirge reminiscent of the Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones album.
Robin Eubanks' composition "Full Circle" was a highlight for the entire crowd. The ambitious tune began swingingly, the interplay between Nelson's vibes and Smith's be-bop esque kick-drum "bombs" stepping into Eric Dolphy Out To Lunch territory. Soon the song had morphed into a Chris Potter solo over a speedy, spy-movie straight-eighths feel. Smith seamlessly transitioned into a heavy funk that served as a vehicle for Eubanks to tear a new a-hole in the Sheldon. One audience member even waved his hands in the air as if he just didn't care (I'm fairly sure I spotted this same enthusiastic fan playing air-piano at The Bad Plus show two weeks prior). After the post-trombone-solo applause had subsided, the tune went back into the spy movie feel and then back into the swing. It was a musical palindrome hinted at by the song's title, and it was hard to believe that it lasted an entire 28 minutes.
By the time Chris Potter's "Thisisalude" closed out the second set, the Dave Holland Quintet was officially playing to the room. Steve Nelson was pounding away at the low notes of his marimba, taking advantage of his ability to distort the microphones dangling above his instrument. Nate Smith made his snare drum echo thunderously through the Sheldon's stellar acoustics. The packed, diverse crowd was united in their approval. Across the aisle from me, a late teenager was rhythmically nodding his head. Two rows in front of him, a white-haired woman was making the same motion. The people watching the Dave Holland Quintet may not have been aware of what time signature the song was in, but that hardly mattered. The group had penetrated the crowd's eardrums, made a quick pit stop in their brains, and most important, moved their feet.