There are precious few functioning jazz big-bands any more, especially since Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin called it quits last year. Apart from the ghost orchestras (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie), the retro experiments at Lincoln Center, and local groups such as Carol Sudhalter's Astoria Big Band, these larger ensembles are few and far between and there is no real economic basis for their support. (The economic basis for all but one or two symphony orchestras is equally nebulous but they seem to have life-support mechanisms within their various communities that are not available to jazz ensembles.) Holland has found a solution to this problem that works perfectly for his unique approach. Since the 2000 the Montreal Jazz Festival, he has created an as-needed big band by grafting brass and reed sections onto his award-winning quintet. Lo and behold, the quintet's music transfers perfectly to the larger ensemble, maintaining the same balance between structured composition and virtuoso solo work. The rhythm section, built around Holland's rock-steady bass, and Steve Nelson's vibraphone (and occasional marimba), works perfectly with the driving vamps and shifting meters that underlie Holland's writing and provide maximal stimulation for the soloists.
On this night, all of the soloists had plenty of room to stretch out. Robin Eubanks, a member of the core quintet, was featured on his own composition Mental Images, along with his kid brother Duane on trumpet. His front-line quintet partner, Chris Potter, turned the final Free For All into a tour de force, with a bitch of a tenor solo over the metrically ambiguous bass vamp that flowed from a lengthy Holland solo. Nelson's polyrhythmic mallet inventions emerged several times from the mix, while Smulyan's baritone was up front on The Razor's Edge along with Sipiagin's trumpet. Sipiagin was heard again on flugelhorn on First Snow, recalling the late Booker Little, along with Aron's trombone and Gross' alto. And Hart dug in for a deeply soulful statement on Blues For C.M. dedicated to Charles Mingus in a way that only the alto saxophone can do.
These are just some highlights; everyone took a turn at the microphone, and each soloist was supported by instrumental interludes alternating with lengthy sections alone with that endlessly propulsive rhythm section. The end result this band works, the interest level never flagging for a second. And so the band will continue to work, in both the esthetic and the economic sense, hopefully on a regular basis. The vein that Holland has discovered lies at the core of contemporary music. With influences flowing into it from Coltrane, Davis, Shorter, Mingus, Kenny Wheeler and a whole generation of highly creative improvisors and composers, it has crystalized into a music of great beauty and vitality. As long as Holland can continue to mine it, don't look for him to be toppled from the top of the reader's or critic's poll anytime soon.