Bass Instincts

Dave Holland's jazz cuts to the heart of the matter.

In this regard, Holland has been successful at every stage of his career. He was in his early twenties, and already an important cog in the British jazz machine, when trumpeter Davis recruited him, thereby giving him an opportunity to play on what would become two of the genre's most thrilling projects: the masterful In a Silent Way and its showier, more storied sequel, Bitches Brew, both released in 1969. Holland credits Davis with influencing the way he runs his own band: "He would create settings that would give just enough direction to provide a focus for the piece, but also would allow enough creative choices to the musicians that were playing so they wouldn't feel that their styles were being inhibited or cramped." From there, Holland moved on to Circle, a collective that also featured fellow Davis alum Chick Corea and mad musical scientist Anthony Braxton, whose confidence in the face of resistance from challenge-phobic members of the jazz nation was infectious. "He used to say to me, 'You've got to insist, Holland' -- because as a young player, I had some doubts, as we all do, about whether my work was really worthwhile. But Anthony knew how important it was to validate your own work."

Since then, Holland's done just that over the course of long-term associations with Sam Rivers, Joe Henderson and, especially, Jack DeJohnette, a drummer who shares many of Holland's attributes. In tandem, Holland and DeJohnette form arguably the finest jazz rhythm section heard over the last three decades. "From the very first time we played together, which was in London in '66 when he came through with Charles Lloyd's group, we made a connection from beat one, and I feel that's been a very important musical and personal relationship that I've had and still have. It's allowed me to develop ideas because of the trust and feeling that we have for each other. And even now he's not ready to settle for repetition. He's always looking for new areas and new things to inspire him, and I admire him a lot for that."

Unfortunately, the current state of American jazz makes Holland and DeJohnette exceptions rather than the rule; much of the work being produced by new generation jazzers is staid and predictable, not startling and invigorating. But Holland thinks any shortcomings are most likely a result of access difficulties ("The media needs to be expanded for the music, with more presence on radio and television in America the way it is in Europe," he comments) than a shallow talent pool. He does allow, however, that "we have to nurture the young players and allow them room to grow and room to take chances and make mistakes, because it's often through your mistakes that you learn what's possible and what isn't. And we've got to do it in an encouraging, creative way, not in a dictatorial, dogmatic way."

He's got rhythm, and melody: Dave Holland.
He's got rhythm, and melody: Dave Holland.

These comments seem like references to the neo-traditionalism espoused by Wynton Marsalis and his acolytes, which threatened to squeeze the life out of jazz a few years back. But Holland, ever the optimist, doesn't believe that this movement was entirely harmful. "I don't think it's had a lasting negative effect," he says. "In fact, it helped to introduce people to the tradition of the music. So in a way, it was almost like a fundamentalism that realigned people in ways that are now going to be built on. But I think inevitably the human spirit is seeking for new experiences and new ideas. It needs to expand, and it will, and it does, and it is. And that's why I feel very positive about the future."

Of course, if you'd never made a bad album, you'd feel positive, too.

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