REVIEW: Royal Academy of Music Big Band – The Music of Dave Holland

Dave Holland in rehearsal at the RAM.
Photo Credit: Hana Zushi-Rhodes, Royal Academy of Music

Royal Academy of Music Big Band – The Music of Dave Holland
(Duke's Hall, RAM, 16th January 2015. Review by Peter Vacher)

Rounding out his second week-long sojourn as International Jazz Artist in Residence with this special concert in the historic Duke’s Hall, bassist/composer Dave Holland publicly lauded both the Academy itself and the young musicians with whom he had been working. That said, he was unstinting in his musical application too, playing bass throughout with the kind of unruffled artistry that we have come to expect, while keeping an avuncular eye on the musical to-and-fro around him.

In a first half devoted to his small group pieces performed by the Academy Jazz Ensembles, Holland’s brilliant bass cadenza eased the septet initially into The Oracle, written for Stan Getz but never recorded as Getz wanted to place it with his publishing company and Holland didn’t, the structure of his piece, as with the rest of the small-group items, depending on the repetition of motifs, thickly voiced, with short spots for soloists, the mood reverential rather than free.

Make Believe was similarly neat, the riff repeated, solemn in mood, with Ben Rodney’s flugelhorn cutting through, drummer Ben Brown clattering behind him. Herbaceous, written for H. Hancock of course, was altogether brighter, the playing more confident over a Latin beat, with resourceful piano from Rupert Cox, the first in a series of impressive pianists on view and some nice tenor from Tom Barford.

Next the septet morphed into a nonet with Dream of the Elders, its wordless vocal line overlaying the ensemble and brilliantly executed by Miriam Ast who sang Norma Winstone’s lyrics with commendable grace before launching into an impressive [if over-long] scat improvisation, followed by Ebb and Flow which exposed a bright talent in vibist Jonathan Mansfield and a first glimpse of trumpeter James Copus.

Dave Holland and Alex Davis in rehearsal
Photo credit: Hana Zushi-Rhodes, Royal Academy of Music

Where the first half interpretations had seemed a tad restrained, the students picking their way carefully through Holland’s harmonies, no such reservation applied to the full big band’s performance of Holland’s four-part Monterey Suite, a commission for the eponymous festival and conducted here by the very energetic Head of Jazz, Nick Smart. Clearly conceived as a celebratory affair, this elicited strong showings from the sections, the trumpets blazing, each passage presaged by Holland’s eloquent bass introductions, his writing cleverly layered, the sections thrust one against the other, successive soloists out front, all intent on making a mark.

Names to note: tenorist Matthew Sulzmann, the very persuasive Tom Ridout, also on tenor, James Gold and Sam Glaser, two altos with much to say, guitarist Rob Luft and Ralph Wyld, a vibes-and-marimba virtuoso, plus the startlingly good trumpet of James Copus on Last Minute Man, the very cheery encore .

There are players here who will stay on the jazz radar for sure and be all the better for Holland’s expert attentions. So, take a bow, Dave Holland, “a giant of the music”, in the words of pianist-educator Kate Williams. A view doubtless echoed by this very enthusiastic audience.

LINK: Nick Smart interview, including the full programme and personnel for this concert

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