ESSAY ON JAZZ
Dave Holland Quintet, Theater Basel, April 27, 2006
Steve Nelson—vibes, marimba
Chris Potter—soprano and tenor saxophones
I go to hear live jazz to clear my head.
But it is not the soloists alone
whose riffs turn down the noise that fills my brain.
When I can hear the players interact,
the chords and phrases moving round the band
from instrument to instrument, a riff
on sax that turns into a tom-tom beat
and reappears, rephrased, a gift returned
from the bassist to the tenor man—
and when this band, of drums and bass and vibes,
trombone and sax, begin to play together
like nobody I've ever heard before—
then through my eyes and ears they take my mind
and give it back to me again, refined.
Chris Potter wrote a tune to play with Holland,
his solo first a duo with the leader,
their lines like double lightning bolts across
a mesa, moving faster than my eyes
can follow, but my ears can pick them up
and grow accustomed to how bass and tenor,
returning to each other, turn away
again, again, until the click of sticks
opens my eyes, and I discover drums.
The driven sax then tells me what to call
this song without a title: "Rise and Rise."
But then they prove it's not how loud you are:
the quiet climax of a Holland solo
in the bass's upper register
with cymbals lightly ringing in and out,
and then the horns come in, an orchestra
of sound and volume giving meaning to
the concept of dynamic range—then stop.
This tune entitled "Ebb and Flow" has ended.
Steve Nelson starts his "Amateur Silenti"
as quietly as possible. He touches
his vibes with double mallets in each hand,
a ballad of how silent love can be.
Bowed bass and stately horns, the drums
a gentle swirl of brushes. Tremolos
begin to stir the surface like a breeze
that hints the sky will not be blue for long;
the tremolos crescendo into words
rising through the forces up to gales
until a hurricane of walking bass
and swing provides a center for the storm.
And when bowed bass and stately horns return,
the drums, now sticks providing stops and starts,
keep shifting till the tune has blown over.
"Lucky Seven" is indeed in seven:
another classic Potter tenor solo,
then Smith supporting Holland's dancing bass:
a giant instrument, the lightest touch,
surprising shifts of rhythm and of key
in passages fulfilling the ideal
of spontaneity as composition.
They first exchange a glance and then their roles,
with Holland's ostinato under Smith,
carefully constructing his crescendo
until the horns and vibes begin to play
legato deconstructed Dixieland
over Holland's still-repeating line.
Applause, applause. The encore is a lesson:
how Eubanks on his brand-new tune invites
just Potter to begin a dialogue
in brass, the black trombonist talking to
the white guy on the tenor, chattering
and passing phrases back and forth, a game
of tag as played by children innocent
of race, if anyone can ever be.
The stage becomes a place for acting out
a better world, for weeping joyously
despite and with the bitter certainty
that this is only play. And yet it's play,
this listening to jazz with Aristotle
and all the other seekers of catharsis
going out into the night with clearer heads.