To call Prism (both the name of this album and Dave Holland’s new all-star quartet) fusion jazz might scare away the audience that will most appreciate this music. But the swelling, then soaring energy of jazz-rock is frequently invoked, with patient explosions reminiscent of Holland’s early days with Miles Davis, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and, especially, Holland’s classic Extensions record, which has fallen into mysterious obscurity since being named the Album of the Year for 1989 in the Downbeat critics’ poll.
As on Extensions, Prism features Kevin Eubanks as a primary soloist, and the former Tonight Show guitarist and bandleader delivers arguably the most enthralling and incendiary work of his underrated jazz career. He heats the funky contours of his opener, “The Watcher,” to a fiery glow, lives up to the smoldering Hendrixian blues (a la “Red House”) connection implicit in the Hollins number “Empty Chair,” and ventilates into a fast, phosphorous frenzy to climax the aptly-titled, 10-minute “Evolution.”
Good as he is, Eubanks is barely first among equals on Prism, as all four musicians individuate and coalesce in bold, dramatic, prismatic fashion. Each member contributes at least two songs, and the composer sets the tone. Drummer Eric Harland provides a gospel-soul drum-and-organ groove on “Choir,” and the gorgeous closing ballad, “Breathe,” which is a vehicle for pianist Craig Taborn. But Harland also excels at the sort brittle-beat carpet-bombing that catapulted Billy Cobham to fame. Taborn pens “Spirals,” the sort of oblong, cerebral tune that would be a natural fit for his current trio (and yet works well as a change-of-pace here), and “The True Meaning of Determination,” which leads with an exquisite Holland solo and eventually features one of those hop-scotching Taborn solos (fans of the late Don Pullen know the style) that eventually, brilliantly congeals. And Holland, well, along with his “Empty Chair” gift to Eubanks, his “A New Day,” brings his backbone beats up from the basement furnace to the dining room table with delightful insistence and urgency.
Perhaps the reason Extensions faded from consciousness so quickly was because it was a one-off project — that band never reunited. It would be a crime to let Prism suffer a similar fate.