Three from Brian Holland, Danny Coots, and Co.

Reviewing these three albums is the first time I’ve had the chance to really listen to the Brian Holland/Danny Coots combo. I’ve put their names online a thousand times for our festival roundup and seen a few YouTube videos, but because I don’t make it to many festivals and they have yet to pass through my area I have stayed behind the curve. Our festival going readers are way ahead of me when it comes to the three Holland/Coots outfits I will review today. Lucky them!

That is how information silos work by the way. Never be surprised when someone hasn’t heard of, or in this case heard, an artist. They could attend five festivals a year and still have missed this or that one. It is like that with our paper. I like to think that nine out of ten potential subscribers have never heard of us. Those people surround you at local concerts, big festivals, and jazz society meetings. Please let them know what they are missing.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Brian Holland, piano, and Danny Coots, drums, were already well established on the festival circuit when they began to partner in 2010. They knew they were onto something because for going on 15 years you will mostly, but certainly not exclusively, see them scheduled together now. The perform as a duo, and two different trios, with each expandable into a quintet.

I assume it doesn’t need to be said for our audience but just because an album is seven years old doesn’t mean wait for the next one. If the band still has’em, snag’em! Brian and Danny have no less than 25 albums to choose from on their website Including a few that predate their partnership or find them paired with others. I have chosen these three albums to highlight for the simple reason that I have them. There are two more recent releases. One a western swing album that sounds interesting, and another with Big B.A.D. Rhythm that features Fred Johnson as a guest vocalist, and from its cover looks especially bluesy. The western swing outfit will appear at this year’s Evergreen Jazz Fest in Colorado.

This Is So Nice It Must Be Illegal intrigued me for years before I acquired it. Subtitled A Tribute To “Fats” Waller and His Rhythm the cover features a classic open mouthed photo of the master that just tells you the album is going to be hot. The album includes the full Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, with Evan Arntzen on clarinet and tenor sax, Marc Caparone on cornet, and Steve Pikal on bass. An exceptional lineup of musicians all well known in the festival circuit.

UpBeat Records

The album is hot, but smoother than I expected with a big swing sound. Fats would approve of the big personalities shining through. The bass break accompanied by vocal improv from the crew on “Moppin’ and Boppin’” followed swiftly by a jamming hot close, sets the tempo for the album. Marc Caparone found his way into my heart with his big warm Armstrong style. He will be on my short list of favorite working cornet players going forward. Caparone splits vocals with Evan Arntzen among the eight of fourteen tracks featuring them. Both are excellent singers, adding a personal style to titles that fit them, with Arntzen being more of a crooner. That said, it is the playing on this album, rather than the vocals, that stays with you.

Arntzen is the young man of the bunch, though they all look pretty young to me in the photos from the studio accompanying this 2017 record. Arntzen plays alto and clarinet, and really gets to let go on tracks like “Baby Brown.” If I wasn’t so blown away by Caparone’s work on this album I might similarly gush over Artnzen’s contribution. This is an outfit where everyone knows their role and each new layer is not just an addition but a force multiplier. Just as a jazz band should be.

What takes time to notice is where Brian Holland and Danny Coots fit in the mix. On a Fats Waller album Brian would be forgiven for putting his piano out front but he largely plays a supporting role of rhythm and accent. Even for rhythm, Pikal stands out on bass, supported by Coots and Brian. “Whose Honey Are You?” is an excellent illustration of this, with the powerful bass line front and center with the drums lifting it from below. They know how to build a band, and build a sound. Only deep in the album do Danny and Brian take center stage for extended periods on “Minor Drag.”

So far unmentioned titles include” “Keepin Out Of Mischief Now,” “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed,” “This Is So Nice It Must Be Illegal,” “’Lonesome Me,” ’I Would Do Anything For You,” “I Believe In Miracles,” “Phat Swaller” (credited to Artnzen and Pikal), “Let’s Pretend There’s A Moon,” “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight,” and “Liver Lip Jones.” This is a thoroughly well conceived, well paced, well played, and enjoyable album that should be considered a modern classic by our readers.

GROOVUS is a smaller version of the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, a trio with Steve Pikal on bass. I’ve seen them booked under this moniker at a number of festivals in recent years. Looking ahead they will be at Sacramento’s Hot Jazz Jubilee in September and the Arizona Classic Jazz Festival in November. If you want to dive in on Brian’s piano playing these trio gigs are for you. Or perhaps catch just the duo at the Central PA Ragtime Festival in September.


Their album Songwriters gets at some of their motivations in playing music. Liner notes from Danny Coots say “Each of these songs take me to my own personal past. We all make our favorite tunes about us.” Along with titles by Eubie Blake, Gerswhin, Porter, Berlin, etc., there are surprises from Elton John, Paul McCartney, and a couple of other recent composers. Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Water From An Ancient Well,” for example, is a melody that is immediately recognizable but you might not expect to hear at the Hot Jazz Jubilee. It fits perfectly within this album, a masterpiece. There is also a fabulous rendition of David Thomas Roberts’ “Roberto Clemente” which I thoroughly enjoyed hearing in trio form.

About melodies: a number of titles on this album are not “songs,” having no lyrics, and indeed, Songwriters is an instrumental album even with a trio of guys likely capable of taking the vocal lead. No explanation for this is given in the notes. Where lyrics are appropriate you may find yourself supplying them internally, on titles like Jerry Livingston’s “Under a Blanket Of Blue” you can feel them in the playing even where you might not know them!

What the notes do provide is capsule biographies of each composer, with quotes about the history of the specific title from the composer where available. Chris Walters, whose “Adensaru” is the only title from this century, gets the longest entry, likely because he is unlikely to be familiar. A pianist based in Nashville, I was pleased to go down the YouTube rabbit hole listening to him, and will seek out the 2003 album of original work that “Adensaru” appears on. The notes also tease that the great composers theme of Songwriters may turn into a series of albums, a development I would welcome.


“Adensaru” is an excellent composition, it combines some New Orleans verve and groove, with a bit of a habanera beat, with a melodic line evocative of wistful memory. It makes the perfect upbeat bridge on the album between “Roberto Clemente” and Scott Joplin’s “Weeping Willow.” There is a universality to these titles that would make this album graspable by anyone. My own memory was provoked to think of an LP I had as a very young man. Hits from movies of the ’60s and ’70s that I probably picked out of the Salvation Army bins for “Speak Softly, Love” (AKA “The Godfather Theme”), but listened to repeatedly for the other amazing orchestral themes of the era. Despite this being but a trio the talented musicians involved build a scaffolding that gives these compositions the mesmerizing feel of orchestral treatment.

Brian Holland is a world class piano player and gets to explore a variety of moods and styles throughout the album, and Danny Coots is his perfect compliment. Steve Pikal plays his role as one of the best bassists around, but not as assertively as in the quintet, they are an unbeatable trio. This is a melody forward album, but it takes everyone to give that melody a structure to rest on.

Hearing their jazz trio renditions of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four” had me thinking just how long into our history piano focused titles dominated the charts. Though today we still have Lady Gaga and Adele making piano hits, and the 1990s had Tori Amos, there aren’t any Billy Joels out there I can think of, aside from maybe John Legend. This despite the fact that most compositions are still picked out at a keyboard. Anyway… Songwriters is an album that will get you thinking, get your memories churning, do all the things a great song will do, even without vocals.


If you take the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet as the standard bearer, and the GROOVUS trio, at least on Songwriters, as a reflection of another side to their interests, than B.A.D. Rhythm can be seen as a third thing altogether. Brian and Danny are joined by guitarist Andy Reiss in a trio or as BIG B.A.D. Rhythm with Pat Bergeson on second guitar and harmonica, and Sam Rocha on bass. 2019’s Lucky Devil, features the larger group.

Piano is again prominent but a lot of room is made for a guitar lead. There’s still plenty of jazz to it. This isn’t rock by any means. Much in the way of Songwriters it is simply music, timeless music. The guitars and harmonica open up new avenues of mood and expression for this version of the quintet, even if that is a long guitar solo on “Please Be Early” or a sultry “Willow Weep For Me.”


While I imagine they could really hammer out Chicago roadhouse blues, check out “Cantaloupe Woman,” most of the music here is subdued, or at least hits on a slower groove, like the lovely title track.

“Lucky Devil” was written by Jason Jurzak, a New Orleans based Sousaphone player and bassist who plays with Meschiya Lake among many others. Written in 2009, it was the title track to her debut album. It is a marvelous song, and I commend whoever brought it to BIG B.A.D. Rhythm. I lamented recently how no one covers new compositions in our genre anymore. Holland and Coots are an exception, and the opportunity to compare very different versions of this song is priceless. Sam Rocha provides vocals on the album; always impressive, they rise to excellence on “Lucky Devil.”

With 25 albums to explore at, I hope you don’t stop at these three. In any formation, the Holland-Coots combo is not to be missed at the next festival you attend.

This Is So Nice It Must Be Illegal
Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet


Lucky Devil
BIG B.A.D. Rhythm

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Joe Bebco is the Associate Editor of The Syncopated Times and Webmaster of

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