For years now, there has been no more proficient working band in jazz than the Dave Holland Quintet. Like such precursors as the Jazztet and the Jazz Messengers, it balances songcraft and improvisation with consummate ease. The seasoned frontline of saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks and vibraphonist Steve Nelson goes beyond the usual tag-team solos in engaging in complex time schemes and coloristic shifts, extending themes and partaking of overlapping lines.
Holland formed his first working quintet in 1983, featuring alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, trombonist Julian Priester and drummer Steve Ellington. A series of albums recorded over the next four years - including Jumpin’ In, Seeds of Time, and Razor’s Edge - laid the foundation for Holland’s songbook.
Holland also formed his current quintet, which includes tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, vibist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks and, a more recent addition, drummer Nate Smith. Among their notable recordings are Not for Nothin, Prime Directive and Extended Play.
Holland first heard Potter when the award-winning tenor saxophonist was about 19, and playing alto with Red Rodney at the Blue Note. “I was doing a gig there with Joe Henderson,” Holland recalls. Later, he joined Potter on a recording session with DeJohnette and John Scofield. “I was struck by the composure he had for a young musician and his sense of balance. He played with a great deal of assurance.” Potter also knew Eubanks from their stints in the Mingus Big Band, which already made for great chemistry in the horn section.
Pittsburgh native and vibraphonist Steve Nelson has been a mainstay in all of Holland’s bands, save for his sextet, since the mid-’90s. “He’s one of the great improvisers I’ve had a chance to play with,” Holland says. “He brings something new to the table every time. I see guys scratching their heads at what he’s doing. I wanted a chordal instrument in the group. I didn’t necessarily want a piano. I wanted something to give more openness to the music, chordally. Steve’s approach to playing can be very spacious at times. He knows when to lay out and when to play. There are often long stretches where he’s not playing and then he comes in just at the right moment. A lot of people ask me why I’m using vibes. The reason is Steve Nelson.”
Eubanks, who has been in Holland’s ensembles since the mid-1980s, brings an expansive range to the band. “He can get a very pure French horn-like sound on the high register and can go from that to a real gutbucket sound, and all the points in between,” Holland says. “It’s really important to me that the musicians are deeply grounded in the tradition of the music but at the same time are looking to move that forward - not only in their playing but in their composing as well.”
Drummer Nate Smith was also quite young when Holland first encountered him, during a visit to the University of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia., where Smith was a student. After another encounter at a memorial concert for Betty Carter, with whom Smith performed in the vocalist’s last years, Holland invited him to join the quintet in 2003. “He’s got a great warmth to his playing, a great sense of community,” Holland says. “I always need players who can really get into a dialogue with each other in the music and are really listening to each other and are not up there playing for themselves. And, again, he’s another fine composer in the band. Because of his generation, he brings a particular perspective to the music, as does Chris, which I really appreciate and enjoy.
Following up on his 2005 Grammy win for Overtime, Dave Holland returns with Critical Mass, the new album from the critic and fan favorite Dave Holland Quintet. The album features all of the original members including Chris Potter (saxes), Steve Nelson (vibes), Robin Eubanks (trombone) as well as new member Nate Smith (drums). Critical Mass (2006) boasts some of the band’s catchiest tunes while showcasing its fondness for mussing up their clean foundations with free-spirited exchanges before restoring civility. The album includes four new Holland compositions, as well as one from each of the band members. The material ranges from bassist Holland’s Middle Eastern-tinged “Secret Garden” to drummer Nate Smith’s hip-hoppy “The Leak.” Powerfully contained on tenor, Potter sounds like he’s been listening to the great, departed Steve Lacy on soprano while Nelson plays up his percussive skills on marimba. Pure and simple, this is a class act.