Point Counterpoint


Musical reductions are commonplace, expansions less so. Nineteenth-century virtuosos displayed their wares in keyboard adaptations of symphonies; Gershwin later created a player piano version of his rhapsody. Occasionally, a Stokowski would reverse the process and make a chamber work symphonic. But either way the result tends to generate the dubious respect accorded gimmicks. In jazz, reduction and expansion seem more fluid, but only when the composer of the original is responsible. We don’t give a second thought to Ellington taking a piece created for a small group, enlarging it for the big band (or vice versa), and additionally reworking it as a piano solo, piano-bass duet, or any other configuration that came to hand. But we can live without an augmented version of, say, the Miles Davis Nonet; many shuddered at the very notion of orchestrating A Love Supreme. Would Hall Overton’s elaborations of Monk have been as readily countenanced if Monk had not been his pianist? Adaptations of noted jazz solos by bands or vocalists are a part of jazz’s requisite fuel, and belong to a separate category that encompasses all of jazz history.

In an era of unceasing homages and remakes, we should probably count our blessings that more classics aren’t recycled in fashionable outerwear. Yet two of the most exciting developments in big band music of the past 15 years have resulted from musicians resizing their chamber-size themes: first Jimmy Heath, and now Dave Holland. The wonder of Holland’s 13-piece band, as recently heard at Birdland and on his momentous new album, What Goes Around (ECM), is that the pieces don’t sound reworked, even when you compare them with his small-band or solo bass versions.

Like Heath, here is a brilliant instrumentalist in midlife revealing not only a love of big band jazz, but a command of the idiom that indicates decades of (secret?) woodshedding. Unlike Heath, who began his career with an orchestra in an orchestral era, Holland has not been regularly associated with one since his student days, when he divided extracurricular time between the London Philharmonic and the Ronnie Scott house band, and doubled on electric bass, catching the attention of Miles Davis, who brought him to the U.S. in 1968. Holland appeared on the major Davis albums of the next two years—Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and several live albums that followed. Yet in leaving Davis he also left fusion, and moved toward the acoustic avant-garde, recording duets with guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist Barre Phillips and touring with Circle.

In 1972, Holland recorded Conference of the Birds (ECM), a stunning statement for that era, paving an accessible middle road that sidestepped fusion and free jazz, and portended a modern mainstream in which such fearsome players as Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton sounded uncompromisingly at home. Constantly in demand for his gorgeous sound, upbeat swing, and sturdily inventive and melodic accompaniment, Holland managed to hold together a series of quintets. The present edition includes trombone (Robin Eubanks started with him in 1987, preceded by Julian Priester) and saxophone (Chris Potter joined two years ago, preceded by Steve Coleman and Steve Wilson) in the front line. More adventurous is his rhythm section. Holland has always avoided piano, and only rarely used other chordal instruments (briefly, guitarist Kevin Eubanks), but the 1994 addition of Steve Nelson’s vibes magnified the group’s spectrum and potential for interaction. Holland’s bass represents clockwork dependability, while Nelson offers a free-associating commentary. Billy Kilson’s drums turned up the heat; joining Holland in 1997, he offered a very different kind of percussion than predecessor Marvin Smith, supplanting jaunty meticulousness with an incendiary restlessness that can blanket the room. The quintet, as heard on last year’s Not for Nothin’ (ECM), is alternately light-footed and precipitous, and if it resembles no comparable group, it doesn’t really resemble the orchestra either.

Although the big band stems from the quintet, mass changes everything. Holland has thoroughly ingested three axioms of orchestral jazz: There’s no point in having a lot of musicians if you don’t employ them to accompany and counterpunch the soloists, devise interesting harmonies for them, and play loud. What Comes Around comes alive with the volume up, the troops in battle formation, the nuances splayed (ECM makes superb use of stereo range). It’s a long album (25 years ago, it would have been released as two LPs), but something is always going on. Solos are set up and closed down with ensemble passages, and rarely do players get to breathe the air of the rhythm section alone—the winds shine like colored lights, shifting from one hue to another, and the vibes are everywhere, involved in a discreet shadow game. Most surprising about the harmonies is the frequent reliance on a ’40s comfort-food sound, especially in the reeds, which places the writing in an Ellingtonian tradition even while it proffers a crazed polyphony—almost a free-jazz Dixieland.

Holland’s favorite devices, which he is in danger of overdoing, are ostinatos and counterpoint, though he finds so many congenial ways to use them that it’s hard to complain. Yet they distinguish this band. Holland appears to have absorbed everyone—certainly Ellington, Mingus, and Evans, but also Thad Jones’s asymmetrical melodies and contrasting harmonies, and Bill Holman’s contrapuntal sections and unpredictable shape-shifting. Holland’s incredibly deft ostinatos, which leverage soloists and ensemble, and the proliferation of themes—there’s rarely a point without a counterpoint—help define a stylistic autonomy that subsumes the borrowings. A key indication of his success is the excellence of the soloists: Chris Potter doesn’t play nearly as incisively on his own recent CD; Gary Smulyan, Antonio Hart, and Josh Roseman have never sounded more imposing, and given one shot to emerge from the anonymity of section work; Mark Gross plays an alto solo on “First Snow” reminiscent of the kind of star-making turns John Handy took with Mingus in 1959—he is anonymous no more.

The title track, “What Goes Around,” is the album’s most ambitious work. I don’t know which came first: the small or big band version. The former, heard on Not for Nothin’, was recorded after the big band debuted at the 2000 Montreal Jazz Festival, and only four months before the big band recording, so this is by no means a clear example of orchestral expansion. Yet the current arrangement is so formidable in design and execution that the other sounds like a clever reduction, working with the same material but lacking the conviction of size. Holland begins with a provocative bass ostinato, backed by a sprinkling of vibes, on which a mildly sultry brass theme intrudes; the saxophones counter with a stirring, expansively voiced figure that suggests post-war Ellington, as Nelson plies four-mallet chords; a joyous cascading multiplicity of instruments builds, as if each man were peeling away from the ensemble until the whole band is soloing, nurtured by Holland and driven by Kilson. The orchestra waxes and wanes, before Potter embarks on one of his best tenor solos, a broad, gruff, pulsing flight energized with short figures and a Rollins-like sonority (and a Rollins phrase, too), until those ’40s riffs rack up another ensemble interlude, setting up Eubanks, pushed relentlessly by Kilson, who in turn unleashes his own firestorm—in all, 17 minutes and every one earned.

Mingus’s mighty influence is more vigorously felt, in timbre and attack, on Holland’s 1993 solo “Blues for C.M.” (Ones All, Intuition) than on the 1987 quintet version (The Razor’s Edge, ECM), but in both of those versions, the piece seemed little more than an attractive blues doubling as ingenious homage, suggesting Mingus’s style (plangent sound, strumming) and melodic universe—especially in the ninth bar. The big band gives the piece new life, paying its respects by building on Mingus’s precepts rather than mimicking them; the highlight is Nelson’s spellbinding solo, played fast with a chilled-gin sound, letting the phrases breathe and breezing over the reeds. When the quintet played “The Razor’s Edge” in 1987 and “Shadow Dance” in 1983 (Jumpin’ In, ECM), it had the unison thrust of a big band, but the new versions virtually define the difference between augmenting parts and completely reconsidering a work. Paradoxically, the new “Razor’s Edge,” with its unison thrusting theme, can easily be imagined in a small-band reduction, yet the brighter tempo and total deployment of instruments transform a reticent work into an aggressive one.

Although several pieces are motored by a Holland ostinato—notably the first track, “Triple Dance,” which begins deceptively bare with bass, vibes, drums, and Smulyan’s adroit baritone—the leader never features himself until the closer, “Shadow Dance,” which is radically remade, and masterly from top to bottom. He ignites it with a dramatic, carefully paced Mingusian solo of a sort that few other bassists are likely to try or bring off. Hart takes up the baton on flute, and after a while the band announces itself with modestly punching chords, no more than that, and it’s like suddenly seeing the horizon filled up with cavalry. It’s only a matter of time before they charge down the hillside. What Goes Around was recorded in January 2001, and a second volume is already scheduled. On the evidence of new music heard at the Birdland gig—including the impressionistic ballad, “A Rio” (impressive Mark Gross), and the contrapuntal fanfares and astonishing Holland display of “Happy Jammy” (the last movement from his “Monterey Suite”)—this looks like the start of something big.