Thursday, January 16, 2014

Revisiting The Dave Holland Big Band at the 2005 North Sea Jazz Festival

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


It was in incredible.

My first experience listening to the Dave Holland Big Band involved a track that lasted 17.26 minutes, and yet, it felt like it was over in a flash.

What happened?

How can something with a duration of nearly one-third of a minute seemingly elapse so quickly?

After listening to this selection - What Goes Around – the title track from the band’s first CD on ECM [#1026] - I was instantly and completely absorbed in the music of this big band.

In case you are not familiar with Dave Holland, he is a bassist who assumes a very dominant and propulsive role in the band’s music.

How can you swing a big band with from the bass chair?

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening in this band’s music – the bass player is the driving force behind it – both figuratively and literally.

Dave Holland has impeccable credentials as a bass player dating back to the late 1960s and his tenure with Miles Davis.  Over the years, Dave has been the mainstay, a force, if you will, in a number of small groups where his huge tone, superb note selection and excellent sense of time have contributed greatly to the overall quality of the music.

But, bringing all of these skills to bear in a big band is quite a different matter as, more-often-than-not, the sound of the bass is lost in such surroundings.

In addition to Dave’s bass and the sterling musicianship of the other players, it is the nature and quality of the big band’s arrangements that distinguish its music.

Traditionally, big band arrangements have been tightly configured vehicles ruled by the constrictions of time and structure. Initially, one reason for this was to take commercial benefit of the earliest records, which along with radio broadcasts, supper club and ballroom appearances, served to generate audiences for the big bands.

The big band tradition came into existence at a time when 7-10” 78 rpm recordings were the mainstay, thus allowing for approximately 2:00 – 3:30 minutes of music to be captured on them.

The temporal and spatial restraints of these early 78’s curtailed the time available for the playing out of a big band arrangement and related solos.

Typically, the earliest big band arrangements, particularly from their high point in The Swing Era, 1930 – 1945, involved a statement of the melody and the release [bridge], brief solos by one or two instrumentalists and then a slightly altered restatement of the theme to close things out.

The advent of the long-playing album in the 1950s made possible longer recorded performances which resulted in more time for featured soloists and the interspersing of riffs, interludes and “shout choruses” [fanfare-type choruses that preceded the closing restatement of the theme], thus extending the typical big band arrangement to approximately 4-6 minutes.

Of course, there were exceptions to this format and these usually occurred when a big band was recorded in performance at a club or Jazz Festival.  One of the more notable examples of such an extended, recorded performance was the classic 20+ choruses by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves on the 14.37 minutes of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue on the Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival Columbia LP.

But here again, the structure of the arrangement is largely patterned after the more traditional big band arranging format which is altered to allow Gonsalves time to spin his saxophone magic and enchant the crowd at Newport, Rhode Island’s Freebody Park on July 7, 1956.

There were also exceptions to this generalization by arrangers who emphasized concert or orchestral approaches such as those associated Stan Kenton, as well as, big bands scored for by Gil Evans and Gerald Wilson, and, of course Duke Ellington’s extended suites.

Due to copyright restrictions, the crackerjack graphics theme at CerraJazz LTD was unable to use the music from the “first impression” What Goes Around recording on its video tribute to the Dave Holland Big Band.

Instead, it, turned to a live performance of Dave’s tune The Razor’s Edge from the band’s appearance at the 2005 North Sea Jazz Festival which contains smashing solos by Alex "Sasha" Sipiagin on trumpet, Steve Nelson on vibes and Gary Smulyan on baritone saxophone.

In Dave’s arrangement of the tune, you can hear all of the ingredients that make the band so engaging, engrossing and enthralling such as:

- collective improvisation by one, two instruments or even the entire band as an element in the arrangement and/or a background for the soloists to improvise over

- stop time

- the rhythm section “laying out” [stops playing to create a sudden background of quiet]

- restating the theme between solos

- rhythmic riffs played behind soloists and between solos

- alternating such riffs between sections [i.e.: brass and reeds] to give them contrasts

- counter melodies played between sections

- multiple shout choruses as a prelude to the closing theme

Basically, the arrangement is being elongated to allow the soloists to expand their solos, a format which is more characteristic of Jazz in a small group rather than a big band setting.

And, by variegating these orchestral backgrounds, it serves to energize the soloists who now have many more stimuli to chose from as a springboard for their improvisations.

The implementation of all of these arranging, orchestrating and scoring devices provides for a landscape of continually changing sonorities that keeps the music interesting for both the musicians and the listener.

Amazingly, given the variety of the devices employed, they always seem to occur in exactly the right place in the charts for Dave’s band.

With all this going on in the music, is it any wonder that time seems to standstill while listening to it?

If you are looking for something “new and different” in your big band fare, why not give the music of the Dave Holland Big Band a try. 

Don’t be surprised if you lose track of time while doing so.

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