At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
Bassist Dave Holland came of age, more or less, in the loose-fitting Miles Davis bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s, so he has long understood Miles’ modus operandi as a bandleader: corral the finest, most open-minded musicians into a cohesive unit and let the juices flow. Listening to the music from that franchise, you could hear the distinctive imprint of Wayne Shorter or John McLaughlin or Keith Jarrett, but you always knew, unequivocally, that what you were getting was Miles.
The same has held true with Holland’s own bands — none more clearly than the dynamic band he led from the late '90s into the 2000s. The Dave Holland Quintet, as it was simply known, featured Chris Potter on saxophones, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on vibraphone and either Billy Kilson or Nate Smith on drums. In a certain sense it recalled earlier Holland ensembles, like a late-'80s quintet that included saxophonist Steve Coleman.
But the turn-of-the-century quintet had its own stride and metabolism, and for a handful of years it loomed as one of the most reliable thrill rides in small-group jazz. The instrumentation allowed Holland to draw on all of his trademarks as a composer-bandleader: sinewy athleticism, jostling counterpoint, high contrast in color and timbre. Eubanks and Potter contributed tunes as well, mostly hewing to this style. And while the band released several studio albums worth hearing, beginning in 1998 with Points of View, I don't think there's a substitute for how it sounded on the bandstand. Which means, almost by definition, that the double album Live at Birdland is the essential document, a chronicle of fierce ignition and extravagant intuition.
Among other things, the album reveals just how much trust Holland places in his bandmates. Listen here to "Prime Directive," which was the title track for a previous studio release. It's the sort of airtight, aerodynamic postbop composition that makes you think of good industrial design. But in this live version, it also features a long stretch where the rhythm section drops out, leaving Potter and Eubanks to improvise in tandem, with all the intricate dialogic entanglement of an argument in a Robert Altman film. Later there comes an excellent Nelson solo, and a groove-centric drum display by Kilson. As the kids say, "So killin', man."