06 May 2009

Review: Pass It On

Dave Holland Sextet

The other day, I realized that (the inefficacy of historical analogies aside) Dave Holland is kind of like the Art Blakey of postbop. Like Blakey, Holland has become an Old Lion who continues to surround himself with younger musicians. Not necessarily a talent scout, Holland does not discover new stars so much as create an environment to which they are attracted and in which they thrive. Holland's alumni association is quite impressive: it includes Steve Coleman, Kenny Wheeler, Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, and Marvin "Smitty" Smith, among others. Maybe not as impressive as the volume of sidemen who passed through Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but about as good a roster as you will find in contemporary jazz.

Despite a constantly evolving working ensemble, Holland manages to craft albums that are both representative of his own style and refreshingly different from anything he has recorded before. That Mr. Holland has not been afforded the stature among casual jazz fans that Blakey is given is unfortunate, but I doubt he would care much for my mythologizing. I was first exposed to Holland's music in high school when I bought a copy of Prime Directive. I bought it having never heard Holland - I liked the album cover and remember the album getting a five-star review in DownBeat, so I figured it was worth the money. I was immediately taken by the record, and have since gotten my hands on much more of Holland's work.

Pass It On features Holland in a different setting than most of his albums. Instead of his normal quintet, he is joined by longtime sideman Robin Eubanks with Eric Harland on drums, Antonio Hart on saxophone, Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, and Mulgrew Miller on piano. The presence of Mulgrew is interesting, considering that Holland rarely uses a pianist, even on his big band albums, usually opting for a vibraphone instead. The album leads off with "The Sum of All Parts," a Eubanks tune that flows from an extended drums-and-trombone duet by Eubanks and Harland into a group improvisation featuring the entire front line. From here the tune commences, with snaking syncopated lines adhering into a beautiful fugue. After a minute-long melodic sequence, Holland begins a solo that is reminiscent of the highly logical melodies which grace so many of his albums. The tune is representative of the Holland's milieu: tightly-orchestrated melodies over a distinctive harmonic structure.

The remaining tunes on the album are all Holland compositions, most of which have appeared in different forms on previous Holland efforts. Nearly every one is a winner. "Modern Times" is the best of the bunch, though, featuring a very tight arrangement with wonderful timbres. Against a backdrop of Eubanks' trombone and Sipiagin's trumpet (which sounds about as mellow as a trumpet can sound), Hart and Miller unfurl a sinuous melody which on paper may look like an exercise from a method book, but on record sounds sublime.

As is so often the case, Holland's sidemen are top notch. Frequent collaborator Robin Eubanks is in his usual virtuosic form, and his command over the trombone pays vast dividends on the album. Hart and Sipiagin are two who I have not listened to much in the past, but both won me over on this album. Eric Harland is Eric Harland, and frankly, if he is good enough for Holland, Charles Lloyd, Jason Moran, and Terence Blanchard, then he is surely good enough for me. Pass It On slipped a bit under the radar last year, and did not appear on many year-end best-of lists, which is a shame. The album makes a great primer on the Dave Holland Graduate School of Jazz Performance.

Track Listing: The Sum of All Parts; Fast Track; Lazy Snake; Double Vision; Equality; Modern Times; Rivers Run; Processional; Pass It On
Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Antonio Hart, saxophone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Eric Harland, drums

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