Sounds Like: The Dave Holland Quintet’s “Critical Mass

Dan Willis

The Dave Holland Quintet, one of the premier groups in contemporary jazz, spent 18 months touring before releasing “Critical Mass,” their first studio album since 2001’s “Not For Nothin’.”
The personnel promises nothing short of the apex of modern jazz: soprano and tenor saxophone titan Chris Potter, easily one of the most inventive and exciting soloists around, joins the soulful and exuberantly agile trombonist Robin Eubanks, alongside vibist Steve Nelson and his Monkish angularity.
The relative newcomer Nate Smith on drums plays the role of groovemeister, acting as spark plug and energy multiplier.
As with his previous small group projects, bandleader and bassist extraordinaire Dave Holland never allows his status as leader and contractor to get in the way of ensemble music making. He subsumes himself to the group in order to foster a cohesive unit with enough musical gravity to shake the jazz world on its axis.
The album begins with the coolly muscular post-bop of “The Eyes Have It.” A great composition, the melody weaves in and out among the ensemble, settling on Potter’s tenor as he takes it into the first solo. Potter gives a rock-solid performance on this disc, and his solo on this track is a case in point.
Beautifully paced, Potter’s “spontaneous composition” – he prefers that term to “improvisation” – juts and bounces, lurches and sprints, swaggers and steams towards a peak which has the whole ensemble in an open-mouthed frenzy.
Holland’s solo follows as a stoic and subtle dialectical exhale to Potter’s powerful statement. Before the melody returns, Potter and Eubanks engage in an improvised duet, which has become one of the defining elements of this group. The improvised duets, which also occur between Nelson and Holland, are indicative of the best this quintet has to offer.
At times it seems as if the playing on this recording might almost be too polished. Their playing is definitely a refined musical product. This group knows itself, what it wants to do, how to do it, and they can just flat out play the snot out of their horns.
However, the recording has a few moments, like in the telepathic musical conversations between Potter and Eubanks, where the music absolutely crackles with a pure floating spontaneity and genius which point toward the best of what these musicians are capable of. These blistering and rare exchanges are exciting, and are the best of what I think this group can accomplish and aim for.
While of course an improvised duet between Potter and Eubanks can’t be the whole CD (but I’d give it a listen if they made it), I think musicians of this level have an obligation to take the sorts of musical risks which push them toward that sort of crackling and terrifyingly spontaneous energy.
Besides the duets, the band is at its best when Smith’s relentless hip-hop-steeped grooves infect the soloist. When this happens, though, it is a team effort, not a Blakey-esque sort of rhythmic strong-arming. While Smith is not necessarily dictating the energy level, he is always on the edge, eager and ready to lead the charge and respond to the soloist.
On the whole this is a great CD that gets better with each listen. “Critical Mass” is definitely worth checking out if you want to hear what is going on at the top of the jazz world.