Dave Holland Big Band at Birdland
Being out front when a big band is functioning on all cylinders, getting hit in the solar plexus by that combination of reeds, brass and rhythm section is to experience euphoria. When that force and/or enveloping presence also carries feelings for the heart and food for the brain it becomes a jazz trifecta.
These days anyone who starts and tries to maintain a big band is either intrepid or "un poco loco." Big bands are "a dying breed" and have been designated as such for quite a while. The exceptional Dave Holland Big Band, as it proved in its four-night residency at Birdland, is an exception to this prevalent, conventional wisdom.
Perhaps the DHBB is in a category all its own not only for of its fresh approach but because of the four-year process that it became an entity, springing forth from Holland's working quintet. "What's very important for me is having the quintet as the nucleus," Holland has been quoted in connection with the band's ECM CD, What Goes Around. "Our approach to the music brought the band together quickly, and created the soul and spirit in the music."
In its initial incarnation in 1987 the 13-piece DHBB included a piano. When Holland later formed his much-praised quintet, Steve Nelson's vibes subbed for piano and became an important factor there and, later, in the reconstituted big band. The strong rapport between Holland and Nelson is obvious on the bandstand. The bassist appreciates the way the vibist accompanies the soloists. "It's like Ellington," Holland says, citing one of his strongest inspirations. "Sometimes Duke layed-out entirely but he knew what to do for each of the individual personalities."
At Birdland these elements were there from the opening number, "Triple Dance," written by Holland, as is everything in the book. A vamp figure brought on baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan who gradually introduced a theme as the trombones and trumpets interspersed a backdrop of riffs before dropping out as Smulyan forged ahead with gusto against an undulating, Middle Eastern type of meter. Nelson's comping caught a corner of your ear with hints of "Bags' Groove." Rich ensemble playing preceded a solo from Steve's subtle, lambent vibes and then some high-octane, nonstop, tightly connected choruses from trumpeter Sacha Sipiagin.
"Last Minute Man" combined a funky beat with another edge thanks to drummer Billy Kilson who throughout the evening handled all manner of rhythms (including the 11/4 of "Happy Jammy") with an unflagging vitality and astute use of dynamics. Trombonist Josh Roseman and trumpeter Duane Eubanks were the soloists here who later returned as simultaneous improvisers in the midst of the pulsating ensemble.
At the outset of "What Goes Around" the dual soloists were tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and trombonist Robin Eubanks. Holland and Nelson provided kalimbalike effects between ensemble roars. Then Turner soloed at length, beginning by playing off Holland's figures with short phrases and growing out on the bassist's musical trellis and Kilson's quick sticks into a virtuosic performance, stoked by the horns. Eubanks came in for his helping, also starting with the rhythm section and building to a climax with the entire ensemble. Kilson began his solo turn energetically with Holland as the bass base, then eased down before taking it to a crescendo.
With Antonio Hart's flute and a Harmon muted trumpet creating a sound, the mood shifted hemispherically south with "A Rio." Mark Gross displayed a wonderfully silky sound, recalling Ellingtonia, in the exposition of this bossa theme and returned later to solo with biting brilliance. In between there was linear melodicism from trombonist Jon Arons.
"Happy Jammy," the last part of a suite Holland wrote for the Monterey Jazz Festival served as the set-closer. After a swift opening riff by Holland, with Kilson boiling underneath, Robin Eubanks soloed long and strong; Hart, who played both soprano and alto saxes in the piece's ensemble, soloed on the former with the same mix of verve and soul we have been accustomed to by his alto play from the days when he was one of the young lions. The deft intermingling of ensemble and solo work that mark Holland's charts was again at work, topped off by a colloquy between Hart and Eubanks.
Having mentioned everyone else in the band I must point out the fine lead trumpet of Taylor Haskins, an alumnus of the Manhattan School of Music who, as a member of its Jazz Orchestra, showed improvising skills that Holland plans to utilize in the future.
That future, if the size and reaction of the Birdland audience can be used as a barometer, should be bright. The full house for the first set was extremely enthusiastic. When I left the club there was a long line being rained on heavily waiting to get in. I'm sure they were well rewarded by the second set.
This band has strong roots in the big band tradition but it also has a very personal, contemporary ethos that is capable of bridging all generational gaps.