When a musician who plays a “secondary” instrument — even one who does so magnificently — takes the reins as a jazz bandleader, the results are often muddled, the sound turned upside-down. Dave Holland, considered by many the most versatile bassist in jazz, avoids that pitfall by remembering to act like a bass player first and letting his leadership manifest itself more subtly.
Subtle was the watchword on the first of the well-matched quintet’s four-night stint in New York. Allowing for considerable ebb and flow, Holland and company traded long, oblique solos — some a bit overextended, to tell the truth — that meandered from post-bop expressionism to what verged on academic oratory.
Boldly, Holland chose to open the set with two as-yet-unrecorded numbers, both of which stretched languidly past the 15-minute mark. The appropriately titled “What Goes Around” ambled in an ever-widening circular pattern in which the musicians seemed to do little more than retrace their steps. Liftoff was achieved, however, on “Cosmosis,” a fiery number fueled by the sharp unison playing of trombonist Robin Eubanks and Chris Potter, who switched to soprano sax for the tune.
For the set’s last half, Holland concentrated on tracks from his “Prime Directive” album (ECM) and gave himself a bit more leeway in taking the spotlight. “Looking Up,” which incorporated a dizzying drum solo from Billy Kilson (a stellar anchor all evening long) was moodier and more melodic than much of Holland’s work — reflecting, perhaps, his days with Charles Lloyd.
The quintet continued down that path on the compact ballad “Make Believe,” which Holland turned into a tour de force of his own, traversing virtually every playable inch of his standup bass — and somehow not making it seem like mere showmanship. In assembling a resume that includes stints with disparate giants as Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton and Stan Getz, Holland has had the chance to absorb a great deal of original thought.
Fortunately, he came away from those gigs knowing that “original” is the operative word in creating memorable work — and Dave Holland is certainly an original.