The big band format continues to occupy a strange and difficult place in jazz music. On the one hand, it is a composer’s and arranger’s showcase, and requires a uniformly good group of musicians who can play tightly and meld together to form the sounds that are arranged on the page. On the other hand, a commanding big band demands excellent soloists and players with unique voices that can be used to advantage within the structure of arrangements and compositions.
The big band fell out of favor once it became unfeasible to keep such a large unit on the road (the only way for such a group to bring in real revenue), but it never died off completely, partly because it is the dream of any good composer or arranger to write for a large group, and partly because the sound of a good big band is genuinely loved by a certain group of jazz listeners. Those who have labored under the “modern” big band banner—Toshiko Akiyoshi, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Maria Schneider—often find themselves relegated to an obscure corner of an already obscure musical form, but the dream does not die. Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus, two of the most modern of jazz musicians, continued to experiment with larger bands and would almost certainly have maintained full-fledged big bands had they been able to do so and still earn a living.
Dave Holland is the latest jazz great to jump into the big band arena. Holland’s resume is, of course, impeccable. He came to the attention of jazz listeners as the bassist in Mile Davis’s then-new electric bands, playing on Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew. He then worked with Chick Corea’s avant-garde quartet Circle and recorded his own excellent album, Conference of the Birds.
Since then he has continued to record for ECM records with trios, quartets, his quintet, and collaborations with a variety of musicians. His last recording, Not for Nothing won numerous awards and kept Holland at the top of critics and listeners polls. Now he presents the thirteen-piece Dave Holland Big Band, which includes the members of his quintet augmented by an assortment of top-notch musicians. Some may think that this group is a little shy of a true big band, which is often comprised of eighteen to twenty pieces. But, like Mingus, Holland uses his arrangements to make the most of his group, which includes four saxophones, three trombones, and three trumpet/flugelhorn players. He forgoes piano for Steve Nelson’s vibraphone work, and this is a good choice since it lends a fresh sound to the group. Anchoring it all is Holland’s bass, as steady a force as there is in modern jazz.
Most of the compositions here come from Holland’s work with the quintet (or quartet) on such 1980s recordings as Jumpin’ In, Triplicate, and Razor’s Edge. Creating big band arrangements from previous compositions is a good idea—it allows Holland perspective on which compositions would best make the transition from small to large group and it allows him to reimagine the compositions and devote his attention to the arrangements. The influences that seem most apparent within Holland’s arrangements are Duke Ellington (of course, no one writes or arranges big band music without having studied Ellington closely), Mingus (who provides examples of ways to thicken lines and make a mid-size group sound even bigger), and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band. Given Holland’s work for ECM and his demonstrated ability to play “out”, some may consider the big band work to be somewhat conservative, but ultimately Holland is able to walk the line between the demand for a modern sound and the traditions of the format quite admirably.
The soloists here are all of the highest order, and they present themselves as individual voices whenever they emerge from the ensemble. With the exception of the closing “Shadow Dance” the group limits itself to two or three soloists per track, which provides an excellent opportunity for each soloist to state his case but does not send so many soloists to the microphone that the listener is fatigued long before the end of the track. There are wonderful contributions from Holland’s quintet members, with Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, and drummer Billy Kilson all providing standout moments, but other group members such as baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, and trumpet player Alex Aipiagin distinguish themselves as well.
It’s a compliment to say that while many of the CD’s seven tracks are quite long (most averaging around ten minutes with two coming in at seventeen and nearly fifteen minutes) you’ll never be bored listening to it between the textures of Holland’s deft arrangements and the fine solo work. Not every musician who can compose or arrange can make the jump from small group to large group, but What Goes Around demonstrates that Dave Holland has the necessary skills, and if you like big band music at all, it will be on your CD changer for a very long time.