Review by Brad Walseth
The Dave Holland Quintet is one of the longest running, hardest working combos on the current jazz scene, and they have consistently delivered exciting and well-played music both live and in the studio - to the delight of their growing legion of fans. It is a pleasure to report their first release in 4 years - "Critical Mass" continues this trend, with four new songs by bandleader Holland and one each from each of his talented co-contributors. The lineup features Holland on acoustic bass, the exciting Chris Potter on tenor and soprano saxophones, trombone virtuoso Robin Eubanks, new drummer Nate Smith (replacing Billy Kilson), and secret weapon/vibraphonist Steve Nelson. Their last release - "Live at Birdland" is one of the finest live jazz recordings I've ever heard, and this new album is yet another statement that Holland and his band are out to take no prisoners with another strong release.
Holland's "The Eyes Have It" opens up swinging full-tilt, with all members providing divergent parallel lines to create a coherent whole. Consistent with their signature sound, Potter, Holland and Eubanks solo over Smith's expressive drumming - while Nelson's vibes paint airy harmonic context, allowing everyone room to breathe. "Easy Did It" (also by the bassist) is a slow, bluesy piece dedicated to New Orleans that features Potter's plaintive soprano, Nelson on marimba and Eubanks' earthy and extremely inventive trombone voice. Potter contributes the catchy "Vicissitudes" - which lives up to it's name through a constantly changing structure that provides the group a platform to display their amazing ability to play off one another. Here, as throughout, Potter showcases his stunning proficiency - showing the skills that have helped catapult his name to near the top of young great saxophonists of the current generation.
Drummer Smith adds his original composition - a clever, slinky piece with an addictive unison theme - "The Leak" which has been gaining considerable airplay on contemporary jazz radio - and deservedly so. Holland's Middle-Eastern flavored "Secret Garden" is lush and enigmatic, with some choice Holland fretwork; while "Lucky Seven" (also written by the bassist) is a tilt-o-whirl of ever-changing fun, highlighted by a clever and high-spirited bass solo, Eubank's trombone fluidity, Smith's precise drum panorama, and Nelson's vibraphone frippery - all of which builds to the type of full band frenzy fans of Holland's work have come to expect and love.
Robin Eubanks' "Full Circle" is yet another musical delicacy filled with unpredictable shifts and turns that can only lead to even more controlled mayhem by this cadre of spirited group improvisers. Finally, mallet man Nelson gives us his "Amator Silenti" - which starts off with beautiful shimmering mallet tones over Holland's gorgoeus-toned bowed bass before escalting into a middle section of free-form blowing that, in turn, evolves into the majestic theme that ends the album. "Critical Mass" is the work of a group of individuals who know how to play together as a unit, and who have again written and recorded another release of exceptional power and grace.