Dave Holland Quintet: Live at the Jazz Showcase

There goes Brian, nailing what’s right about the Dave Holland Quintet:

The albums contain highly composed pieces that blend methodical structure with moments of sophisticated chaos, where counter melodies between the horn players carry out conversations of every emotional gamut while the rhythm section gets ridiculously slippery in their seamless changes.

My first Dave Holland Quintet album was Extended Play: Live at Birdland, an energetic 2-CD set recorded in November 2001. The band—Holland on bass and the primary composer, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Chris Potter on sax, Steve Nelson on vibes, and Billy Kilson on drums—brings its “A” game to the famed jazz club. The musicians have wiggle room, as only one track is under ten minutes. The 2 CDs comprise over two hours of music, and only nine tracks. Holland’s sound is thick-toned and crisp, like a snap of cold fog on a city night.

And the band is a city band—there’s no sense of the rural or pastoral in the music, even in the ballad “Make Believe.” The quintet moves with sophistication and brash style, but the sounds they evoke are city noises—Eubank and Potter’s horns as car honks and tires screeching on asphalt, Kilson’s muscular drumwork as the subway rumbling underneath, Nelson’s cool vibes as a gentleman gliding himself and his martini through a SoHo party.

As much as I love Extended Play, there’s something almost too precise in it. The chaos is too well-orchestrated, and so even during the most ferocious solos there’s never any doubt that it will all resolve neatly. The one exception is the Potter/Eubanks duel in disc 2’s “Prime Directive,” where the onrush of interweaving noise is so brilliantly cacophonous that there is a satisfying shock when Eubanks finally brings it all back to the main chord progression.

Holland’s studio albums with the quintet and his big band also suffer from the same mathematical problem. The albums are technically flawless and often deeply rewarding, but I usually sense that they’re proofs being meticulously worked out on a musical chalkboard, with about as much emotion as that implies. I enjoy the bursting flair of 2005’s Ovetime (with the 13-piece big band), but it doesn’t move me. Extended Play is somewhat less cerebral, but it’s still an album that affects the head more than the heart.

All of the above is, however, a question of degrees. When Brian alerted me to the fact that the DHQ would be ending a weeklong stand at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago on 22 October, the night I arrived into the city, I jumped. In his post, he explains why I got so excited.

But [jazz] takes on a whole new devilish life when you actually see the gesticulations of the sax player when rushing out on a run with a seemingly never ending breath, watch the bone player quick[ly] blow a wad of spit through the release valve to get the crackle out, know how one solidly placed rim shot from the drummer can have the audience ducking for cover.

I’ve only had the opportunity to see live jazz a few times—a cold February night at the Village Vanguard with the Jeremy Pelt Quintet, a couple of “Jazz Under the Stars” showcases on the grounds of the Dallas Museum of Art, a tired and bedraggled combo playing in Jackson’s Metro on Farish Street. Even with the last (mediocre) concert, the experience was intensified by knowing that the band was in the process of creating as I watched them.

Jazz is an intimate music; outside of festivals, it’s rarely played in venues that hold more than 300. The club lighting is usually romantically dim. Conversations in the audience are muted and whispered. Glass tinkles gently, the waitstaff is as quiet as possible during sets, and you can hear the rattle of a bass string even without a microphone. You’re always up close to the musicians, physically and metaphorically.

I wanted to sit up close to the DHQ. My flight touched down at O’Hare International just after four. By six, I was checked into my hotel. By 7:45pm, I had a table and an Irish coffee to myself at the Jazz Showcase. Around 8:20pm, the band strode onstage.

The first surprise of the night was Potter’s absence. “Chris is quite ill,” explained Holland. “It’s not serious, but it’s serious enough that he can’t be here tonight. So we’re the world’s smallest quintet tonight, and we’ll just have to play like five people.” They proceeded to do just that. Eubanks had to hold down the melody and harmonic structures by himself. Live, it’s easier to see how incredibly percussive the DHQ is as a unit. That’s befitting of a group led by a bassist, of course, but actually seeing Eubanks as the only musician not hitting something with either his fingers or sticks brings the point home. It should be noted here that Eubanks’s trombone is punchy, anyway, and the limitations of the instrument’s sliding mechanism means that it’s brassier and less melodically precise than a saxophone in even the best of circumstances.

(Between sets, I chatted with Eubanks—something you can rarely do at a pop concert—about how he was faring in Potter’s absence. “It’s weird. We’ve played without Chris before,” he said, “but never without another tenor saxophonist. I’m having to pace myself tonight and make sure I have enough energy to make it.” The DHQ had played a 4pm matinee show earlier that day. While he certainly looked winded onstage, he never sounded it.)

The rhythm center was even more noticeable because of the night’s second surprise—the new drummer, Nate Smith. Unbeknownst to me, Smith replaced Kilson on the new album and (I think) was making his live debut with the band this tour. Whereas Kilson was merely muscular, Smith was explosive, aggressive like Elvin Jones in John Coltrane’s famous quartet. His jaw-dropping solos electrified the audience. He was so inventive that he seemed to always be soloing, expressive even in the composed sections of songs.

Nelson answered him with the night’s most intricate and contemplative solos. The vibes have a pretty limited range of sound, but I saw how he managed to bend that range to make wild beauty. He changed mallets in the middle of solos, choosing ones with harder, softer, and clothed heads on the fly. That seems like such a simple idea but, until seeing the vibes played that night, I never knew how it was done. He spent the night hunched over the vibes, quickly picking up and setting down sticks, like a kid constructing frantically with his Lego set.

Holland was serene, grinning slyly through both sets.

I missed Potter, of course, but I also missed familiarity—the band only played two songs (Holland’s “Claressence,” written for his wife Clare, and Eubanks’ “Mental Images”) that I knew. It didn’t matter. The band propelled the enthusiastic, sizable audience to terrific heights. The interactions were fierce and unexpected, played with an abandon that’s either lacking from the studio work or just especially noticeable in a nightclub. I had intended to just sit for the 8pm set, but I stuck around for the ten o’clock, too.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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2 Responses to Dave Holland Quintet: Live at the Jazz Showcase

  1. brian says:

    For formalities, thanks a whole bunch for the mention in your post, very appreciated and kind. More importantly, glad you had a chance to check them out there in Chicago!! Bummer about Potter being out, he was actually the more dominant soloist when I saw them here in MI, Eubanks appearing to have an off night– still sounded great, but Potter was obviously ‘in the zone’ so to speak. Cool to get a chance to speak to Eubanks too.
    If you haven’t picked it up yet, I’d really recommend Critical Mass, been in heavy rotation at my place for the past month. I was a bit hesitant at first due to owning several other DHQ albums and thinking that it would be more of the same, but Nate Smith taking over on drums makes it worth it. Brings a looser, funkier style and really opens up the structure, which, as you pointed out, can be a bit tight at times with Holland. And he was an absolute blast to watch play, an infecting animal dynamism that lasted days afterwards………

  2. Wax Banks says:

    This is your semiregular reminder…

    …to check out that other Walter guy, a/k/a Quiet Bubble, who’s delivered two doozies since getting back from Chicago. I like that Walter’s writing is so evocative, but not because of any apparent impulse to ostentation – he chooses words

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