Bassist Dave Holland is, by any thought process applicable, a true jazz master. Formerly with Miles Davis, Holland also co-founded the influential free jazz band Circle, co-formed Gateway, and worked with others like Sam Rivers, Stan Getz and Thelonious Monk. Since those early days Holland has mostly worked as a band leader, forming a variety of always interesting groups based on slight variations in timbre brought about as much by Holland’s writing as the artists who he chose to include. Of particular note is his Grammy winning big band, which demonstrated the depth of Holland’s harmonic palette and contrapuntal proclivities.
Holland’s current venture, chronicled here from a live date at Birdland in 2009, unites members of his working quintet with those from the big band into an octet. Even more so than Chick Corea’s Origin, Holland has taken the best and most deserving jazz minds and talents who lack only wider recognition, not to mention the most underappreciated jazz musicians working today, and codifies them into a single tightly wrapped amalgam that is fleet of foot, quick of mind and exciting as "all-get-out."
The band includes baritone saxophonist and New York stalwart Gary Smulyan, who rocks the house from beginning to end. His solo on "Pathways" is, typical for him, full of quick turns of harmonic alteration, solidly grounded in jazz’s tradition yet still exciting and original in conception. Alto saxophonist Antonio Hart is soulful even as he inserts twists and turns into the vamp-based chordal pattern on "How’s Never?" before letting it all out and tearing up the joint. Drummer Nate Smith is not just a capable soloist but also able to deftly handle the ruminations and kicks necessary to drive music as rhythmically difficult and intricate as this to powerful climaxes over and over. Chris Potter, more known for his tenor work, demonstrates that all of his subtly oriented upper chordal structure abilities are just as resplendent on soprano on the beautiful ballad "Sea Of Mamara." It’s trombonist Steve Davis, however, who impresses the most. The degree to which he has grown with regard to tonal shadings, technical prowess and depth of thought, from when he first started playing with Holland, is outstanding, and his solo on "Ebb and Flow" is nothing if not deserving of its own Grammy.
Holland is ever the rock and spiritual guru from which the ensemble derives its drive. His opening solo on "How’s Never?" lays out the not just the harmonic territory to be explored, but also the mixed meter backbeat groove upon which the chart is based. As a composer he is unique and his charts feature multi-leveled connections that allow for more interplay than even he creates in his thickly scored big band work. Into this mix he gives each soloist plenty of time to develop their ideas. All band leaders should be so generous.
There is never a time when this band isn’t contrapuntally involved at many levels with mixed line radiances that never settle - they’re too busy boiling over the pot. If this recording doesn’t earn yet another Grammy for Holland there will be something wrong in Denmark.