Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Support City Paper!
Pathways is exciting before it leaves the shrink wrap. The live album’s credits include trombonist Robin Eubanks, tenor/soprano saxophonist Chris Potter, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and drummer Nate Smith—bassist Dave Holland’s regular quintet, and arguably the best small group in progressive jazz. They’re bolstered here by three top-notch horn players: Gary Smulyan (baritone sax), Antonio Hart (alto sax), and Alex Sipiagin (trumpet). The overstuffed bandstand illustrates Holland’s ambitions as much as the music’s oblong forms, hyperactive rhythms, and dense arrangements. It’s a brew that gives rise to some self-indulgence, but mostly it succeeds. If Holland tends toward geeky complexity in his writing and arranging, the product also bursts with hooks and grooves. “Ebb and Flow” is a three-part progression with as many themes as meters, shifting midmotif from salsa rhythm to waltz. Holland offsets this, however, with the zesty Afro-Cuban riffs he gives his horns, and his enthusiasm for the rhythm section—the tune never outwardly sounds like anything but a frantic dance. Similarly, what comes through best in Potter’s soprano feature “Sea of Mamara” is not its jumps between 7/4 and 6/4 but the ballad’s tenderness and the exquisite delicacy of Potter and Nelson’s solos. The musicians play no small part in Pathways’ merits. Holland and Smith are the bedrock, fulfilling that role with surprising subtlety. Both follow Smulyan and Sipiagin through dynamic improvs on the title track while holding to a solid matrix whose nuances emerge with close listening. Subtler still is Nelson, whose light obbligatos are barely noticeable but glue the orchestral harmonies together on “Shadow Dance” and “How’s Never?” In contrast, all of the horns are power players, bringing oomph to the rich backgrounds of “Sea of Mamara” and the free-improvisation coda of “Ebb and Flow.” As soloists, they have bottomless reserves of melodic and rhythmic imagination—Smulyan’s rhythms falter on “Pathways,” but he more than compensates on his cool, noirish blues feature, “Blue Jean.” Only one facet of the album is excessive: its length. The shortest track clocks in at seven-and-a-half minutes—not exactly the stuff for easy digestion. Likewise, “How’s Never?” begins with a three-minute unaccompanied bass solo, whose free form is hard to untangle, and continues with overlong solos from Hart and Smith. These no doubt killed in concert, but home audiences tire more easily and aren’t well-rewarded for their efforts here. (Hart’s improv ultimately has some meat, but the repetitive first third sounds like an extended warm-up.) Yet “How’s Never?” is still a monster tune, with wonderful morsels amid the indulgences. And ultimately, the album’s occasional digressions are just rough spots in a Holland effort that delivers all the excitement promised by its credits.