Recording of March 2005: Overtime

DAVE HOLLAND BIG BAND: Overtime

Dave Holland, bass; Antonio Hart, soprano & alto sax, flute; Mark Gross, alto sax; Chris Potter, tenor sax; Gary Smulyan, baritone sax; Duane Eubanks, Taylor Haskins, Alex Sipiagin, trumpets, flugelhorns; Jonathan Arons, Robin Eubanks, Josh Roseman, trombones; Steve Nelson, vibes; Billy Kilson, drums
Dare 2/Sunnyside SSC 3028 (CD). 2005. Dave Holland, prod.; Louise Holland, co-prod.; James Farber, eng. DDD. TT: 79:02
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Vital and durable jazz big bands are rare. Maintaining a big band is not only costly, but most suffer creative stasis because of constantly shifting personnel. Long gone are the days when Duke Ellington could fine-tune an orchestra, its membership steady and devoted to his direction, by composing and arranging with individual players' strengths in mind. Today, Wynton Marsalis writes new material for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, but the group is more of a repertory ensemble, even if some of its arrangements of classic material are suspect.

Even the remarkable Charles Mingus Big Band—which, thanks to Mingus' widow, Sue Mingus, is the only high-profile group keeping the bassist-composer's still-vibrant music alive—plays its weekly New York sets with a revolving door of musicians who have commitments to other ensembles. The band works primarily because its focal point is not its cast of interpreters but Mingus' charts.

Still, in 2000 bassist Dave Holland expanded his already mighty quintet to a big band. He never expected the experiment to last more than a few gigs, nor was he certain he could creatively sustain it—this was, after all, his first exploration of arranging older compositions and developing new material for 13 improvisers to dive into as one. But following a one-shot triumph at the 2000 Montreal Jazz Festival and a subsequent tour, Holland's pianoless band took root and thrived. A major factor contributing to its fruition was the bassist's resolve to, like Duke, maintain a stable group of musicians and, in his own words, "give everyone a chance to stand up and be heard."

Five years later, the Dave Holland Big Band has become one of the most salient success stories in jazz. Its tours sell out, Holland has accrued awards for Best Big Band to Top Bassist to Top Artist, and the group's recordings are remarkable documents of a large ensemble breaking new ground. The first Big Band disc, What Goes Around, released in 2002, was a revelation of full-ensemble beauty and drive. With Holland supplying the rhythmic mortar, the band launched into an inspiring and often thrilling set of originals that displayed a flawless balance of form and freedom.

The band's second outing, Overtime (on Holland's own label, Dare 2), is a masterwork that continues this rousing journey. The group has matured—only trombonist Jonathan Arons and trumpeter Taylor Haskins are new, replacing Andre Howard and Earl Gardner, respectively. The seven pieces—all by Holland, except for the spirited "Mental Images," by trombonist Robin Eubanks, who also plays in Holland's quintet—are extended pieces with dynamic arrangements, galvanizing horn harmonies, and rousing improvisational interplay. With veteran engineer James Farber at the board, the clarity of sound is superb, from drummer Billy Kilson's cymbal clicks and clacks to Steve Nelson's chilled vibraphone comps to the subtle pulse of Holland's bass.

While the music is of the straight-ahead school, Holland's brass-packed swells and Mingus-like tempo fluctuations and the band's scripted and unscripted responses make it flow with the kind of unrehearsed zest that emanates from a cooperative effort in which everyone is contributing at the top of his game. Also key is how Holland keeps the soloing in check (usually, each tune spotlights two players; on two occasions, four players) and ensures that his soloists don't disengage themselves from the band—not one of these tracks features an ego-driven blowout. When tenor saxophonist Chris Potter checks in with his gales on "Bring It On" and "Free for All," the first two parts of Holland's four-section "Monterey Suite," he doesn't forge ahead on his own but is embraced by the rest of the band, who urge him on with rhythmic thrust and surging horns.

Much of the music on Overtime dances—not with the swing of the golden days of the big band era, but with grooves tinged by the popular music of today. The final track, "Last Minute Man," which Holland says bears the subtle influence of hip-hop and R&B energy by the likes of Snoop Dog and Missy Elliot, is a soulful beauty buoyed by the improvisations of trombonist Josh Roseman and trumpeter Duane Eubanks. The cooker is part four of "Monterey Suite," "Happy Jammy," which opens with Holland generating an electric-bass–like current on his acoustic instrument that sparks the rest of the band into an uptempo, jam-happy romp.

Holland also delivers two quieter numbers. "A Time Remembered" opens and closes as a sober melody that develops into a midtempo sway in the middle. The most lyrical tune is "Ario," another Holland composition originally recorded with his quintet. Here it's arranged as an 11-minute melodic gem of mystery, grace, passion, and exuberance, expressed in the trombone and alto-sax breaks of Arons and Mark Gross, respectively.

Overtime's significance goes beyond the considerable pleasures of the music itself. The album is proof of Dave Holland's commitment to seek beyond the usual constraints of the big-band format to discover music that is fresh and vigorous, and positions him as one of today's most compelling jazz artists.—Dan Ouellette

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