Review: Dave Holland and Chris Potter

Bassist Holland and tenor player Potter joined The Royal Academy of Music big band in one of the jazz gigs of the year, writes Roger Farbey

One of the pre-LJF jazz gigs of the year was undoubtedly the Royal Academy of Music’s big band featuring both Dave Holland, the RAM’s Jazz Artist in Residence and saxophonist Chris Potter (pictured right), RAM’s Visiting Professor of Jazz. Even better was the fact that the concert was one of the inaugural events in the plush purpose-built Susie Sainsbury Theatre with the jazz department making its official debut in this new space.

Holland recorded on Potter’s album Unspoken (Concord, 1997) and the much-vaunted American saxophonist’s first appearance on a Holland album was Prime Directive (ECM, 2000). Since then Potter has appeared on nine more of the bassist’s albums. This concert, the culmination of a week-long residency, featured large-scale works by both musicians including the UK premiere of Dave Holland’s recent project with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band with new arrangements of his older compositions by Jim McNeely.

Significantly and appropriately for someone who has made such a major contribution to jazz, the evening opened with the presentation of honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music (Hon RAM) to Dave Holland who mentioned in his acceptance speech how delighted he was to share this honour with his old friend, the late Kenny Wheeler, a previous Hon RAM.

The music was stellar and included 10 numbers, five by Holland (pictured left) and five by Potter plus a (pre-arranged) encore of Holland’s The Empty Chair, from his album Prism (Dare2, 2013). The opener, The Razor’s Edge, from What Goes Around, (ECM, 2002) featured for its first solo trumpeter Alex Ridout, who gave a bravura performance. Of the remaining Holland numbers, compositions included Make Believe and Juggler’s Parade from Prime Directive (ECM, 2000) where the latter piece included a vibrant and blues-edged bass solo from the maestro. The penultimate number, Holland’s Cosmosis from Not For Nothin’ (ECM, 2001) was introduced with an electrifying and inventive drum solo from Luca Caruso.

Potter’s compositions comprised new pieces constructed around lyrics taken from various poems by Sappho, Kabir et al. These were elegantly sung in turn by Ella Hohnen-Ford and Liselotte Östblom. The former took the honours on It Can Never Be Mine which benefited from a coruscating guitar solo from Aubin Vanns. The Coltranesque To What Shore was enhanced by Östblom’s incredibly powerful vocals.

However, the soloist of the night was undoubtedly Potter, whose dynamic, barnstorming playing featured unfettered torrents of notes that at times ascended into the stratospheric registers of the tenor.

The other star, besides Holland of course, who never disappoints, was the Royal Academy big band itself, led and conducted by the ever-enthusiastic and indefatigable Nick Smart (RAM’s Head of Jazz). This array of super-talented undergraduates plays as well as any big band and probably better than most. The term world-class seems never more appropriate than when evaluating their collective, expertly-honed, skills. Considering the complexity of all the compositions played during the evening this was no mean feat, especially when Smart revealed self-effacingly to the audience that they picked up the scores and ran with them with just a couple of weeks’ rehearsals. However, from an audience point of view this was no mere pick-up band but an unquestionably brilliant big band performance.

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