Dave Holland, much like bass giant, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus before him, thinks and listens as intently as he plays. By doing so, this British-born, New York-based luminary creates maximum emotional impact and meaning with every carefully considered note he produces. In at least one instance on Pathways, the Mingus influence is literal as well as conceptual. Witness the sly manner in which the mid-section of the earthy yet eloquent bass solo on “How’s Never” alludes to Mingus’ gospel-fueled opening lines on 1959’s “Better Git It in Your Soul.”
A master of concision, cohesion and propulsion—three qualities very much in evidence throughout Pathways—Holland also evokes the “social music” spirit of Miles Davis, in whose band he was featured between 1968 and 1970. His tenure included such landmark albums as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as a performance with Davis at England’s historic 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.
Truly a musician for all seasons, Holland, 63, has worked with Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Anthony Braxton, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Cassandra Wilson, Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem, Pat Metheny and many more. He also has two solo bass albums to his credit (1977’s exquisite Emerald Tears and 1993’s similarly stunning Ones All), along with a solo cello album (1982’s Life Cycle). Pathways is his second album of the past decade to be recorded at New York’s Birdland nightclub. It is his first ever with his octet, which he deftly co-anchors with drum dynamo Nate Smith and Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba. They are joined by fellow Holland-band veterans Chris Potter on tenor and soprano saxes and Robin Eubanks on trombone. This core ensemble is seamlessly augmented by baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, Russian-born trumpeter/flugelhorn player Alex Sipiagin and alto saxophonist/flutist Antonio Hart (who regularly subs for Potter in Holland’s quintet). Together, these eight musicians combine the flexibility and tonal and textural range of a polished big band with the intimacy and in-the-moment daring of a seemingly telepathic small group.
This is readily apparent beginning with the first selection, Pathways’ buoyant title track. It boasts a bravura baritone solo by Smulyan, a darting trumpet foray by Sipiagin and the first of several showcases for Holland, whose consistently solid yet fluid bass work is a marvel of sensitivity and frills-free invention. Even before the album climaxes with “Shadow Dance,” a 15-minute opus that finds Hart and Potter engaging in a galvanizing dual-sax dialogue following Smith’s expertly modulated drum solo, it is clear this is an exemplary performance by one of jazz’s most accomplished outfits. Fresh and vital, the octet sounds crisp and uncluttered even in its most animated moments. The brassy, strutting “Ebb and Flow” suggests what might happen if the city of New Orleans was temporarily relocated to Brazil, while the sumptuous ballad “Blue Jean” offers an ingenious marimba solo by the always arresting Nelson.
As Holland has done in virtually every one of his previous bands, he provides a platform for his Pathways colleagues to realize an individual and collective sense of purpose and cooperation. The resulting spirit of generosity, of selflessly yet emphatically serving each composition, pays off from start to finish on the seven-song album (five penned by Holland), which clocks in at over 75 minutes but doesn’t contain a single extraneous note or gesture. Miles and Mingus would be proud.