It goes without saying that when a concert involves bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter—in collaboration—it’s going to be good. Holland’s rhapsodic syncopated bass lines and Potter’s counterpoint cerebral, dissonant, rich sax are at their best live and always sound amazing, no matter who the two are playing with.
They’ve both played with their fair share of masters: Holland with Miles Davis and Potter recently with Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. These two are born performers, completely brilliant and enthralling on stage; despite owning all of their albums, I rarely listen to them at home but never miss their concerts. Yet what makes these two real performers is not just their inventiveness but also their knack for togetherness.
Holland and Potter have been playing together in the Dave Holland Quintet for years, and it shows; they are remarkably in sync. Holland knows how to lead a band to collaborate, to build off one another, to keep adding layers of rhythm and harmony step by step. I’ve seen Potter do the same when he leads his Underground band. While most jazz groups play next to one another—alternating turns in solos and melodies—Holland and Potter are all about playing together, with and against each other and other players.
In short, these two are masters. It’s because of these incredibly high standards that last Friday’s sold-out Dave Holland Overtone Quartet concert at the Palace of the Fine Arts was a disappointment. It was still a great night of jazz, but it was missing their trademark cohesiveness.
The group played all original pieces by each of the band members. They started out with Potter’s “The Outsiders,” which established the basic form and rules of the group. The modus operandi was for the two to build on one another by synchronizing completely in a melodic or rhythmic element, then diverging to eventually create four separate parts—interdependent melodically—but each moving and developing independently.
The result was four layers of sound. As the saxophonist, Potter’s layer had the greatest clarity; Holland’s was equally lucid when audible, but the poor acoustics of the hall tended to drown out much of his work. Though he is a talented pianist, Jason Moran’s playing sounded muddy in the quarter; he was best showcased in his own compositions, like “Gummy Moon,” which emphasizes what the piano can offer. Eric Harland, on drums, sidestepped the normal errors of the percussion section: he didn’t bang but worked meticulously to play with pitch, volume, silences and rhythm. Unfortunately, his commitment to complex rhythms more often than not resulted in chaotic rhythms.
Things picked up with opportunities to showcase Holland and Potter in extended solos in Holland’s “Walkin’ the Walk” and Eric Harland’s “Treachery.” Harland’s “Patterns” was an exercise in repetition: while Potter looped through the same few bars, each of the others slowly built up additional layers of sound with their own internal repetitive logic. It could have been stagnant but it was dynamic, with a real sense of forward motion.
Harland is no Nate Smith, the drummer in both the Dave Holland Quintet—another group of Holland’s—and Chris Potter’s Underground. Smith has proven himself to be the Jack DeJohnette of our generation: he builds harmonies and uses others’ rhythms to develop a scintillating base rhythm, which all other parts play off of and complement. His drumming has been the glue that holds these two groups together because it adds to advancements in rhythmic complexities and points us in the direction that the music is developing. Harland doesn’t take advantage of silences enough to do this, which means that while he can play off one or two of the parts successfully—and he did so beautifully in Holland’s “Veil of Tears”—his playing doesn’t tie everyone together in a singular, cohesive unit.
What we have, at best, are two players who completely integrate and mesh; we can even have two sets of two. But never did the four consistently develop each other’s work. Don’t get me wrong—this still leads to some great music. It just highlights the inherent dissonance in the kind of music they play, and it doesn’t showcase what these performers and bandleaders can galvanize on stage.
The two-hour, intermission-free concert of the Dave Holland Overtone Quartet was met with a warm and well-deserved standing ovation. These are still some of the best musicians in the world. But when you hold them to their own high standards, they could have done better. The space certainly didn’t help; dampened sound, an over-large stage and a very wide auditorium all created awkward distance between the audience and performers, which made it more difficult to engage. Nevertheless, the SF Jazz Festival Spring Season is starting off with a bang, and there’s much more great music to come, from the Brad Mehldau Trio to Gonzalo Rubalcalba.
This review was originally published in a revised form in the Stanford Daily here.