Bass Instincts

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

The reliability of jazz bassist Dave Holland's recorded art is remarkable by any measure. He's been heard on albums since the '60s, and by now his resumé includes seventeen long-players as a leader, plus a towering pile of additional discs as a sideman or collaborator with the likes of Miles Davis, John Abercrombie and Carla Bley. But what's even more astounding than these accomplishments is the simple fact that none of these offerings is lousy -- at least none this longtime Holland observer has heard. You'll find the lost city of Atlantis before you'll find a crummy album with Dave Holland's name on it.

And yet, the possibility remains that somewhere in the universe there's a Holland effort that is less than stellar. Holland, though, is no help in tracking it down.

"You don't think I'm going to be foolish enough to tell you after that kind of lead-in, do you?" he asks, laughing.

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

No, probably not. But who's complaining? In a musical environment where the only constant is inconstancy, Holland stands as magnetic north -- a performer who's been able to find a middle ground between adventurousness and accessibility no matter what musical trends happen to be holding sway at any given moment. He's sometimes edged further into the avant-garde realm than some of his more delicate listeners might have preferred, but even then his steady playing served as a guide for folks who might otherwise have been frightened away from such demanding sounds. Moreover, his labors as a frontman demonstrate that artists who think their only choices are selling out or ripping the envelope to shreds have more options than they realize. They can, for instance, visit this particular part of Holland -- a place that's abundant with possibilities, but still rooted in musical basics.

"Rhythm and melody are two really important components in the music, and certainly in mine they're two elements which allow a very high degree of communication with the audience," notes Holland, a Brit by birth whose manner of speaking is erudite without seeming overbearing. "Melodic and rhythmic elements are very immediate to people. It's one of the things the great Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn had in their music, and it's one of the reasons their songs became so popular even though there's a great deal of complexity in them. I feel that some of the greatest work, not only in music but in other fields, comes from the combination of simple and complex elements together, which allow a multi-layered experience. Let's say someone who doesn't have a lot of experience listening to the kind of music that we're playing would still find a way in through some of the elements that they're hearing. But at the same time, hopefully someone with more experience would be able to come back for repeated listenings and be able to find new things and new experiences in the music."

This description neatly sums up the pleasures inherent in Prime Directive, a new Holland CD issued earlier this year by his longtime label, ECM. As usual, the musicians on hand -- saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and drummer Billy Kilson -- are extraordinarily skillful; Holland has impeccable taste in accompanists, and his reputation clearly attracts compatible cohorts. But the key to their success is their willingness to reject individual glory for the greater good of the team as a whole. The sensitivity of their interplay on the perky, undulating title cut, the patient, dreamy "Make Believe," the multi-faceted, groove-oriented "Jugglers Parade," and the Kilson-composed "Wonders Never Cease" -- a nearly fourteen-minute jazz cruise that's introduced by some of Holland's most preternaturally intuitive soloing -- is as rare in jazz as is honesty in a presidential debate.

The subtlety with which the musicians operate helps explain why Holland has largely flown beneath the commercial radar, but this light touch doesn't make the recording any less satisfying. Holland's been responsible for some memorable LPs over the years, ranging from 1972's Conference of the Birds and 1984's Seeds of Time to the latter-day triumphs of 1989's Extensions, 1995's Dream of the Elders and 1998's Points of View -- and Prime Directive deserves a place in this august company.

For Holland, the quality that knits together the various threads that run through Directive is maturity. "When I was a younger musician, I was probably much more compulsively involved in complexity for the sake of discovering the boundaries of the music," he concedes. "But what I'm trying to do now at this point in my life -- I just turned 54 -- is to bring all of those elements together under one roof, and all my experiences under one roof, so that I can use all my experiences and develop and learn from the whole palette.

"Some musicians have had the ability to do this when they were younger," he continues. "Mozart is one, and the works of Duke in his early years show a great understanding of balancing those elements. But I think it's clear among a lot of composers and players that often a musician's or an artist's life is divided into three periods: early, middle and late. The early period is a kind of searching for boundaries and possibilities, the middle period is integrating those things in various ways and the late period is sort of bringing all those things together, often in less radical ways -- and each period has its beneficial aspects. The sense of discovery when you're young is wonderful; everything is new, it's fresh, and everything you hear for the first time is inspiring. But when you're older, you've perhaps investigated a lot of things and can bring those elements together in ways that help you in your search for new mediums and new settings for your music. So I see it as a continuum. The main thing, for me, is creativity, and that can only be defined by individuals -- the sense of them feeling that they're still doing something meaningful for themselves, primarily, but also for people who are hearing the music."

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."

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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