Downbeat May 1988
The Current Set (Enja 5041) ****
Tradition tends to be a big-picture proposition; discussions of jazz in the ‘80s quickly evoke the earliest innovators at all relevant to the immediate subject at hand, usually juxtaposed with figures from intervening decades. The Razor’s Edge and The Current Set suggest, however, that tradition vitally asserts itself in relatively small increments of time. Dave Holland and Mark Helias are bassists of the same generation --- Holland’s emergence in the mid- ‘60s obscures a six-year age difference -- composing for comparatively stable, pianoless ensembles; a rarity that all but prevents imposition of big-picture traditionalist constructs, though the shadow of Charles Mingus is inescapable.
Mingus’ influence on Holland has crystallized during the tenure of his sterling quintet. Especially on The Razor’s Edge, Mingus’ well-honed, exaltative blues sensibility surfaces in Holland’s solos and ensemble work, giving him a visceral bite that blends well with his quicksilver virtuosity. As typified by Holland’s simmering, mid-tempo blues for C.M., which features an introductory solo that balances pared plaints with the megachops, the Mingus influence has sharpened Holland’s emotional content. The rap that Holland produces more notes than music is dead in the water.
The other, arguably more intriguing aspect of the Mingus connections is Holland’s continued use of former Mingus drummer/vocalist Doug Hammond’s compositions, which provoke some of the quintets spiciest performances. Pivoting on bright pungent phrases Brother Ty quickly establishes robin Eubanks as an able replacement for Julian Priester, as well as prompting Holland’s most overtly Mingus-like statement of the set. Figit Time has the chiseled intervallic symmetry Holland favors in his own compositions, jump-starting Steve Coleman, Marvin Smith, and Holland on a mach-speed romp.
The title piece form Helias’ second album reveals a distinct, if compartmentalized, Holland influence; its brisk theme has the soaring lines and slip-knotted harmonic resolutions that are the hallmarks of such Holland chestnuts as Four Winds . everything on this track --from Greg Osby’s serpentine soprano, to robin Eubanks (who is a shade more forceful on this date), the resourceful Victor Lewis (and, speaking of small increments of evolving tradition, compare the veteran Lewis with Smith, who is in his twenties), and the leader’s woofer-rattling solo -- is extremely well conceived and executed.
Helias’ eclecticism, however, muddles generalizations about his compositional tendencies; the remainder of The Current Set ranges from sweltering samba (Greetings From LC ) to painstaking pointillism (Nuclear One ), with each idiomatic setting receiving the same level of scrutiny given to the title piece. As is Holland’s case with Coleman and Kenny Wheeler, Helias benefits form a core of musicians that give his music a tangible identity -- Tim Berne and Herb Robertson. Their dovetailing, freebop exchange on Ellipsis paves the way for a blistering Berne solo, which, except for his own solo on Greetings, is the most vigorous statement of the set.
Most importantly, Holland and Helias can see the forest for the trees, and the Razor’s Edge and The Current Set attest that they have a handle on the big picture of tradition in late-’80s jazz.
Mark Helias, The Current
Set (Muse) ***1/2
Bassist Mark Helias has developed impeccable new-music credentials in the past decade; his associations suggest that he is an explorer who can also swing. For the most part, Helias places greater emphasis on compositional variety and the diverse strengths of his partners that on specific models (though comparisons with the Dave Holland quintet are inevitable). He has taken pains, in songs like the hypnotic waltz “Ellipsis” to avoid hosting a mere blowing session; he groups the horns in various ways and employs them for frequent support of the one or two soloists designated to carry each piece. The leaders bell-clear sound and serene virtuosity work well with drummer Victor Lewis’s spry patterns and together they buoy the excursions of the others
Jimmy Guterman Boston Phoenix 8/7/87
• Jazz Times April 88
Mark Helias’ The Current Set (enja 5041) is an arresting documentation of what some of the more musically intrepid New York-based artists are up to. The program of the bassist-leaders’s compositions is characterized by steady progress to the precipice. Yet controls are invariably applied lest the effort go over the edge. Helias’ collaborators, all from the front rank of young players, are altoists Tim Berne and Greg Osby, trumpet-cornet-flugelhorn player Herb Robertson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and drummer Victor Lewis. Nana Vasconcelos makes a cameo appearance.
W. Royal Stokes
On his second outing as a leader, Helias has put together a terrific band for “The Current Set” -- a young spirited ensemble that includes Berne, saxophonist Greg Osby, drummer Victor Lewis and trumpeter Herb Robertson.
What really sets the record apart, though, are the tunes. Beginning with the album’s title track, it’s obvious that Helias has a real knack for making a small band -- in this instance a sextet --sound like a big one. Nothing else on the album is quite as exhilarating as this performance; it features Osby’s soprano saxophone swinging joyfully over a polyphonic blend of horns and Lewis’ crisp, insistent rhythms. But the remaining tunes nevertheless off other pleasures. Among the highlights are “No Passport” a brooding showcase for Helias’ reverberating tone and Robertson’s muted trumpet, and “Rebound” a vigorous workout for Berne.