Sitting as one of the most well respected jazz musicians of contemporary times, bassist Dave Holland seems to command critical respect with whatever he produces. Like Tom Waits or Radiohead of other genres, Holland is consistently praised amongst the jazz community for his blending of traditional and avant-garde jazz forms. Being a jazz musicians he certainly isn’t a house hold name, but mention him in the right circles and you would be greeted by almost unanimous praise. In this light it’s hard to be critical of his albums without coming off as simply another fanboy. No matter what form of band he is leading, whether it be a quartet, big band, septet, or in this case, with his album Critical Mass, the quintet; Holland is always backed with excellent musicians. This results in top class execution of Holland’s compositions or arrangements of well known standards.
In the form of a quintet, Critical Mass sees Holland’s compositions sit acutely in between the sparser work driven by the individual performances as seen with his quartet or works as a trio (ie. John Abercrombie’s Gateway); and the fuller, busier work as a big band (ie. The excellent What Goes Around). While the music trades off between the two opposing ends of the spectrum, it is still maintains the unique Holland sound. A sound that is built around intricately layered folk melodies that circle around asymmetrical time signatures. At once blending traditional, cool and avant-garde jazz, the pieces are as much about band interplay as they are about improvisation and individual skill. For example, as an extended vibraphone solo (credited to the incredibly good Steve Nelson) introduces the album’s longest cut, “Full Circle”, the wandering improvisation is anchored by propulsive drumming of Nate Smith and the steadily plodding bass of Holland himself. After about four minutes, the song breaks into it’s main theme; a 9/4 groove that alternates bars of 4/4 and 5/4.
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Holland’s work is the amount of variety found within his compositions. Whereas more traditional jazz genres could become tedious with its attraction to the lead/ solo/ solo/ solo/ lead formula, Holland works more on the idea of adding layer after layer of melody before stripping away layers when soloing. This creates a rich tapestry that rewards the listener with each subsequent listen. About the time Holland brings out his bow to build album closer “Amator Silenti” from cerebral interplay with Nelson’s vibes to a chaotic crescendo, one thing about Critical Mass sticks out. It distinguishes itself as an almost epic experimentation, compared to the elliptical groove of “Easy Did It”, the cool jazz of “The Leak” or the great interplay between saxist Chris Potter and trombonist Robin Eubanks on the slithering, “Secret Garden”. More than anything, this album shows how Holland can produce a vast array of musical ideas, while still remaining within his well recognizable sound.
This is why the Dave Holland has been able to build such a long and distinguished career, starting from his beginnings as the bassist for Miles Davis’ on some of his most well recognized albums (Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way) to Critical Mass. While staying true to his own sound, he remains consistently interesting from record to record. Critical Mass is no different, and should thus earn its place amongst musical collections of jazz and music fans in general.