Dave Holland Quintet are musical mind readers

By Eric Benson

At its best, jazz music fosters a synergy of disparate elements. It is a medium through which the wailing melodies of a saxophone and the deep-grooved rhythms of the drums can understand each other perfectly, even as they speak in foreign tongues. This cohesion of distinct voices defines the music. Jazz is a vehicle for both highly personal expression and seamless collective rapport; each member of a group has a symbiotic relationship with his fellow musicians. He can craft a meaningful solo only if his entire group is responsive to his message.

The Dave Holland Quintet, who played a riveting set at the Jazz Showcase on Saturday night, is extraordinary in its ability to mesh five strikingly distinct voices into an almost telepathic unit. When Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Robin Eubanks, Steve Nelson, and Nate Smith strode onto the stage, it was clear that they feel group rapport is best served by allowing for individual expression. Most jazz groups dress in similar fashion. Not so with the Dave Holland Quintet. No two members of the group appeared to be of the same world. The trombonist Robin Eubanks, dressed in a tight black shirt and black leather pants, had the build and swagger of a cruiserweight, while the virtuoso saxophonist, Chris Potter, would not look out of place T.A.-ing your Self, Culture and Society class at nine o’clock every Tuesday morning. Steve Nelson looked every bit the Monk-influenced mad genius that his vibes suggest, and drummer Nate Smith—the group’s most energetic member—had the playful poise of a benevolent prankster. In the middle of these compelling individuals stood the band’s leader, bassist Dave Holland, exuding the gravitas that comes from more than 30 years of sensational musicianship, and the warmth that comes from knowing that he is playing with perhaps the finest group of his life.

The idiosyncrasies of each member’s appearance were visual clues to their individuality, but from the first measure of “Clarresence,” the Quintet’s opening number, it was clear that the Dave Holland Quintet is an ensemble first and foremost. Each musician’s mind was as concerned with listening as with playing. The constantly shifting rhythms—often dictated by Nate Smith—were immediately picked up by every member of the band, creating complex, groove-based music of the highest order.

Jazz began as dance music, and recently some of its more prominent voices (Wynton Marsalis loudest among them) have lamented the music’s shift from this dynamic. If any jazz group can be said to have the energy of a dance, it is the Dave Holland Quintet. It would take the most agile of artists to physically interpret this music, but even for those of us who are not so blessed, the compulsion to rise up in rhythmic movement is almost overpowering.

The rollicking dynamism of the Quintet is so coherent because it is structured around the dialogues of pairs of musicians rather than five unconnected voices. These dialogues run throughout the music. Often, they are submerged into the larger group sound, but occasionally they are exposed, thrusting the conversing musicians into an unaccompanied duet. On “Jugglers Parade,” the Quintet’s closing number, these duet performances were featured inside the structure of the song. After the melody had asserted itself, Robin Eubanks and Dave Holland began an exquisite trombone and bass duet as the other members of the band sat out. The duet exposed the connection between these two players as they pushed one another deeper into the music. Robin Eubanks had sounded slightly uncomfortable throughout the evening, but in this setting he shined. The ferocity of Eubanks’ trombone played off the rich-toned earthiness of Holland’s bass, creating one of the evening’s most indelible moments.

The duet form was also taken up by Dave Holland and Nate Smith, who have a joyful, almost uncanny rapport, and by Chris Potter and Robin Eubanks, whose front-line interplay led to the music’s most irresistible grooves. Duetting was also the basis for Steve Nelson’s mesmerizing composition, “Amateur Celenti,” a piece that seemed equal parts Cole Porter ballad, Thelonious Monk tune, and Alfred Schnittke concerto. Steve Nelson’s unique approach to the vibes dictated the piece’s eccentric texture; he pounded out Monk-like chords and pranced through lengthy melodic runs with equal vigor. As a soloist and a duettist especially, he was fascinating and unpredictable.

The group sound of the Dave Holland Quintet feeds off these inner duets. In most jazz groups, a musician is a soloist and a contributor to the collective sound. He is both a distinct individual and a part of a seamless whole. In the Dave Holland Quintet, each musician is a soloist, a contributor to the collective sound, and a musical companion of at least one other member. This extra layer creates a beautifully complex sonic texture.

The Dave Holland Quintet has played together since 1997. The only change in personnel has been the replacement of drummer Billy Kilson with Nate Smith. Perhaps it is this rare consistency that has elevated the formidable musicianship of the group. As their enraptured audience reveled in the ferocity of the deep-grooved collective sound, it became clear that each member of the Dave Holland Quintet was so sensitive to the music that he could carry on five conversations at once without missing a beat.