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Dave Holland Paints on a Big-Band Canvas

September 15, 2002|HOWARD REICH



"What Goes Around"


When Holland, one of the most versatile bassists in jazz, unveiled his new quintet in the late 1990s, listeners were struck by the tonal beauty and expressive fervor of this band. Since then, the Dave Holland Quintet has been acknowledged as one of the most polished and creative in acoustic jazz, its acclaim perhaps leading Holland to up the ante, for his quintet now serves as the core of a new large ensemble. The big band's first recording proves even more stunning than the quintet's debut, if only because Holland's ideas on texture, rhythm and color now are expressed on an immense canvas. Even so, Holland's adept arrangements convey the transparency of texture, delicacy of color and malleability of rhythm that made the quintet an instant hit. Somehow, Holland has created a large band that conveys multiple riffs without sacrificing transparency of texture, as on the opening cut, "Triple Dance." The cunning ways Holland paces the climaxes in "Razor's Edge," pitting reeds against brass, attests to the high craft of his writing. The title track stands as a tour de force of big-band writing, with Holland ingeniously developing themes in an ambitious, 17-minute work that unfolds with as much grandeur and grace. (The Dave Holland Big Band performs Oct. 3 at UCLA's Royce Hall.)



"Fantasia Cubana"

Blue Note

Although Valdes' virtuosity as a pianist is well known, his achievements as composer and improviser never have been better documented than on this splendid solo recording. Offering deeply personal, often rhapsodic versions of several classical masterworks, the great Cuban pianist doesn't simply embellish familiar themes--he reconceives them. Thus Frederic Chopin's Prelude in E Minor (the piece Jack Nicholson's character famously played in the film "Five Easy Pieces") attains Lisztian brilliance, even as Valdes preserves its singing, poetic melody line. By extending the pianistic range and expressive sweep of Ernesto Lecuona's "La Comparsa," Valdes brings the masterful Cuban composer firmly into the 21st century. The unexpected harmonies Valdes develops in Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" enriches an already profound work. As composer too, Valdes acquits himself well, the eloquent writing and heroic scope of his "Fantasia Cubana" pointing to the range of his gifts. Finally, Blue Note shrewdly engaged as producer Max Wilcox, whose experience recording Arthur Rubinstein, among other classical pianists, shows in the sonic depth and clarity of this disc.



"Lost in Paradise"

Bolero Records

Only a live performance can verify a musician's technique and tone, but if the Los Angeles guitarist who calls himself Armik commands a technique as dexterous and a sound as brightly appealing as his work on this disc, he should find a large audience. Working in a hybrid idiom that combines elements of flamenco, Latin jazz and acoustic pop, Armik unfurls a series of impressionistic tone poems that might easily serve as a soundtrack for a particularly atmospheric film or TV show. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss original tunes such as the murmuring "Treasures From Spain" or the lush "Bolero Passion" as mere background music--Armik's guitar playing is too stylish, his technique too nimble and his musicianship too thorough for that. Although one hopes that on his next recording Armik might try for greater contrast among the tunes, the poetry of his playing is undeniable.



"Oh, By the Way"


Too young to be admired as an elder statesman and too old to be considered a young lion, saxophonist Freeman belongs to a now middle-aged generation of accomplished jazz artists who never received quite the acclaim they deserved. Nevertheless, during the past couple of decades, Freeman has explored a wide range of jazz idioms, and his work with his Afro-Caribbean band Guataca proves persuasive and, at times, distinctive. Although Freeman's attempt to mix Afro-Cuban dance with American hip-hop on "Mambo Rap" probably will not delight fans of either genre, there's no resisting the mixture of ancient and modern dance rhythms on "New African Village," the seductive flamenco style of "Guitar," or the soaring lyricism of "La Luna." Once again, Freeman reaffirms his status as a jazz saxophonist for all occasions.


Howard Reich is jazz critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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