Category Archives: Dave Holland

An Unedited Blindfold Test with Ray “Bulldog” Drummond On His 67th Birthday

Today is the 67th birthday of bassist Ray Drummond, whose huge sound, harmonic acumen and unfailing time feel have made him one of the major practitioners of his instrument since the end of the ’70s. To mark the occasion, I’ve posted the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test  that he did with me either in late 2000 or early 2001.

Ray Drummond Blindfold Test:

1.    Oscar Pettiford, “Tricotism” (Bass, Bethlehem, 1955/2000) (5 stars)

It’s obvious that it’s “Tricotism” in one of its versions.  O.P.  Oscar Pettiford.  I already know it’s 5000 stars.  O.P. is in the school, the great tradition of Jimmy Blanton; Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers and people since then who have adhered to this  tradition.  The melodic articulation.  He’s trying to play like a horn.  He’s expressing himself, telling a story, and it’s a very articulate story.  He seems himself as a melody player in the same way that a saxophone or trumpet player would.  Plus he’s got great time, his walking is strong.  Ray Brown comes from this same approach to the instrument.  Serious bass playing.  To me this is the main stem, the trunk of the bass tree.  All the branches come from this tradition, and every bass player has inherited this.  Blanton and O.P. and Ray Brown are three of my particular heros that I learned a lot from just listening as I was coming up, as a musician as well as a bass player.  That articulation!  Just a wonderful player.  It’s O.P.!  God is in the house.  I hadn’t heard that version.

2.    Marcus Miller (all instruments), “Tracy” (Who Loves You?: A Tribute To Jaco Pastorius, Concord, 2000) (5 stars)

This is Jaco Pastorius.  It’s not?  But it’s his tune.  He used to play this; I don’t remember the name.  The only person I can think of who gets into textures like this who’s an electric player is Marcus Miller.  That’s the first guy that comes to my mind.  He’s the only guy who has that kind of talent.  It’s just good music!  He’s playing all the instruments?  That’s even better.  He gets five stars anyway, in my book, because he’s such a musical talent.  He’s a great bass player, but he’s also a great musician.  Once again, going back to O.P., who was a great musician, not just a bassist.  Marcus has that sound.  It’s a little harder to catch, given the sound of the bass guitar.  I wouldn’t think I’d pick up on him, because I haven’t been listening to a lot of Marcus’s own projects.  Last time I saw him he was producing a David Sanborn record.  I haven’t seen him play in years.

3.    Rodney Whitaker, “Whims of Chambers” (Ballads & Blues, Criss-Cross, 1998) (Paul Chambers, composer; Whitaker, bass; Stefon Harris, vibes; Eric Reed, piano; Ron Blake, tenor sax) (3 stars)

At first I thought it was an older recording, but now as I listen to it I realize it’s a bunch of younger guys.  I have to figure out who they are.  It’s a P.C. tune.  But it’s definitely not P.C.  What the whole band is doing sounds a bit superfluous; as a producer I’d have to tighten it up a little by snipping out some of what I would consider self-indulgence.  The point is to tell your story, and there’s no reason to have extraneous stuff in your recording.  I think part of the problem is that the compact disk has allowed everybody to become a lot more self-indulgent.  They’re good players.  Younger players. [TP: How can you tell they’re younger players?] I can tell they’re younger because the tonal universe is broader than you would normally hear from the mainstream players of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I don’t know which young bass player this is.  I know it’s not Christian McBride.  It could be one of half-a-dozen guys.  The problem I have is to try to hear guys’ different sounds.  Like I say on my web-site, getting your own sound and projecting your own voice is not one of the paramount values that a lot of younger jazz musicians today are going for. When I came up, I was kind of the last of the generations of musicians who had been counseled, “No matter what you do through your musical life, if you really want to play, acquire a voice.”  You have a voice.  Understand it.  Play through that voice and project that, and understand that that’s you.  Even if your articulation never gets to be too hot, or your choice of tunes or your knowledge or whatever, if you never pursue a career… I can tell you  about many musicians all over the world, the guy might be a doctor or a scientist, and yet he has this gorgeous tone.  Can’t play hardly anything, he can’t improvise, he can barely play a section, but the guy gets up and plays one note — and you say OH!!!  Because he’s got this sound.  In music schools especially, I guess, nobody is teaching people to acquire their own voice as the basic value, as something even more important than getting all over your instrument.  to me that’s much more important than being able to run up and down the bass or the saxophone or drums or whatever.  Having that sound.  Some people play a couple of notes and you say, “Ah, that’s such-and-such” and “that’s such-and-such.” [TP: There isn’t one of these musicians you could say that about.”} Well, I’m listening, and I think I know…I  probably know every one of these guys.  I probably have even worked with  some of them.  But somehow I can’t get that sense.  I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars.  The musicianship is excellent.  For me, a little self-indulgent, which brings the star level down.  But in my opinion, I just don’t think that there is much personality as these players actually have.  So the producer didn’t quite get what I think is necessary to show off the musicians.  It was on the generic side.

4.    John Lindberg, “Hydrofoil (For Fred Hopkins)” (The Catbird Sings, Black Saint, 2000) (Lindberg, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums) (four stars)

It’s definitely post-Ornette style avant-garde playing, but I have a feeling it was recorded in the ‘80s or ‘90s as opposed to the late ‘60s or ‘70s.  To tell you the truth, I really haven’t listened to a whole lot of these guys.  I’m not familiar with people like William Parker.  I’m not saying that’s who this, but I’m saying I haven’t been paying attention to guys like that, because I’ve been out of that loop for a long time.  when I was coming up as a musician in California in the early ‘70s, there were a fair number of opportunities to heat that kind of music, and I did some gigs like that as well.  So I’m not from that school that tries to debunk anything or thinks this is not as creative or as important or as difficult to play as any other kind of music.  I like this music.  I wouldn’t want to play it myself as a steady diet, but certainly for contrast.  I won’t take any guesses. I like the drummer.  Barry Altschul comes to mind, for whatever reason, just from the sound of the recording; the cymbals sounded like ECM.  That’s I said Barry Altschul, because I know they recorded him like that.  But they recorded that kind of music in the ‘70s and they haven’t been recording that kind of music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and this is recent.  I’d give it 3-1/2 to 4 stars for the energy and execution. [AFTER] I  haven’t heard John Lindberg in a long time.  He was a good player with the String Trio, but it was much more “inside” than what I heard here.

5.    Christian McBride, “Move” (Gary Burton, for Hamp, Red, Bags and Cal, Concord, 2001) (McBride, bass; Burton, vibes; Russell Malone, guitar) (4-1/2 stars)

The first thing that comes to my mind is… It feels like Ray Brown, but I don’t know if it is.  Yeah, it’s Ray Brown.  It’s got that feeling.  He’s the only one that pushes it like that. They played this Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.  “Move.”  But let me listen more, because there are a couple of guys who might… I’m going to make a decision when I hear the solo.  It’s got to be Christian McBride, because that’s the only other person… We heard all the Ray stuff in the beginning there.  But this is Christian McBride.  I have to say that straight-out.  I speak about inheriting the mainstream tradition, Jimmy Blanton and how Jimmy Blanton affected O.P. and Ray Brown and the younger guys like Paul Chambers, and he obviously affected Ron Carter, then post Ron Carter you get players like me, Rufus, George Mraz, a whole raft.  And this young guy here, Christian McBride, really likes what Ray does.  That’s Russell Malone there.  I don’t know who the vibraphonist is.  The configuration reminds me of Tal Farlow, Mingus and Red Norvo.  Is this a tribute to that?  But they didn’t play like this.  They had another thing happening.  Probably Stefon Harris.  But if not, I don’t know who it is..  For the musicianship… It swings.  I can’t give it 5, but definitely 4-1/2.  It’s not at the same level as the O.P. [AFTER] Gary Burton?  I’m very impressed, because I did not know that Gary Burton had inherited so much Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo.

6.    Dave Holland, “Jugglers’ Parade” (Prime Directive, ECM, 1999) (Holland, bass; Chris Potter, saxophone; Steve Nelson, marimba; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Billy Kilson, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Dave Holland with Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, Billy Kilson.  It has the different rhythms and they’re right on it.  I caught them last summer live.  We ran into each other at the Northsea, but nobody could listen to anybody, and then we saw them in Munich — we came in a day early and they were working downstairs.  Dave and I are the same age, and I’ve been listening to him since the late ‘60s.  The first I met him was a the Both/And in San Francisco in 1970, when he was playing in Chick Corea’s Trio; ECM had just been formed and they were selling “A/R/C.”  I had bought my copies of Chick’s solo improvised records and “A/R/C” from Chick there in the club, and that’s when I first met Dave.   I really enjoyed what he was doing.  That’s the first time I met him.  But the first time I heard him was in Miles’ band, at a concert they did at Stanford University in 1969.  And I was familiar with him from “Bitches Brew,” which is the first time I heard his name.  He’s got his own sound.  Again, he’s from that era where older guys would say, “Get your own sound, boy!”  Because that’s as important as anything else you’re going to do as part of your musicianship.  When I heard this band last summer, it was just a delight to listen to.  Dave’s got a whole concept.  It’s him!  He’s been playing this way all his musical life.  All the projects he’s been on, from Miles to now, it’s a concept that’s been Dave.  His voice and the message, the story that he tells, and that story has just gotten deeper and deeper and deeper.  I can’t say that about every musician that’s out there.  It’s the kind of thing that gives me a great deal of inspiration, that there’s a fellow bassist who is also a contemporary age-wise… I would never want to play like that, but I love to hear that.  It gives me a lot of ideas as a composer.  It’s just very inspirational.  5 stars.  It’s definitely on the same level as that O.P. piece.  Yay for Dave!

7.    Red Mitchell-Hank Jones, “What Am I Here For?” (Duo, Timeless, 1987) (5 stars) (Mitchell, bass; Jones, piano)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Hank Jones.  From the first notes.  Even though that’s a Rudy Van Gelder recording, that’s Hank Jones’ piano with Hank Jones playing it.  Hank and Red Mitchell.  Red Mitchell.  Talk about someone with a concept, someone with a voice and someone with a great deal of… If you want to just someone by the content of their character, boy, you’ll never go wrong with Red Mitchell!  That was one serious musician.  We miss him a lot.  He had a way of playing… Of course, he strings his bass totally different than the “traditional” way that basses are strung, giving him another kind of approach as part of the concept.  Because he used to play bass the same way everybody else plays it, and then he changed his tuning in the mid-‘60s for whatever reason.  There are a lot of reasons advanced.  Two consummate masters.  Five stars.  You could listen to this all night and sip a few cognacs and pretend we’re back at Bradley’s again, back in the day.  They used to play together several times a year at Bradley’s, and it was always a treat to hear them.  Oh, would we could do such a thing today!  It would be wonderful to have that inspiration again.  One thing about Red Mitchell is that he could play with anybody, and I think a hallmark of a great musician, not just adaptability, but the ability to project that personality in such a way that you do interact with other musical personalities.  And the strongest ones, in my opinion, are the ones who are able to interact with one another using their own personal voices and their visions, and they wind up weaving a story together.  That’s what they did here.

8.    Barre Phillips-Joe Maneri, “Elma My Dear” (Rohnlief, ECM, 1999) (Phillips, bass; Joe Maneri, tenor sax) – (3 stars)

I have no idea who the musicians are.  Again, for me it’s like post-Ornette.  Well, that’s not fair, because Ornette is not the one who unleashed this.  I don’t get the sense of composition.  I get the sense of interaction  of two musicians, as if they just went in and did whatever they did.  This is part of a larger piece or concept?  That’s the feeling I get.  But it didn’t to me as if it was anything other than the two guys interacting with one another, that there wasn’t any kind of motif, or maybe there was a color that was trying to be established.  I’m relatively open-minded about the process, but in terms of the execution of this one I’d have to say 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  The musicianship definitely is good.  The guys know something about their instruments in the colors they’re trying to create and that sort of thing.  But I feel a bit lost because I’m not sure about the context in which they’re trying to place it.  That’s the only reason that I can’t give… I’d give a qualified 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  But I feel a little lost as a listener. [AFTER] I’ve never met Barre Phillips, but I’ve heard his name for a number of years.  And he’s definitely somebody who’s a trouper from the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Obviously, there’s no question about musicianship and that sort of thing.  But as a listener I felt lost.  You told me about Joe Maneri and his microtonal concept, so obviously there’s a context for what this was about.  I think you need to be more informed to be able to understand what’s going on  here.

9.    Michael Moore-Ken Peplowski, “Body and Soul” (The History of Jazz, Vol. 1, Arbors, 2000) (Moore, bass; Peplowski, clarinet) (4-1/2 stars)

Obviously, it’s “Body and Soul” in a clarinet-bass duo.  As far as the performers, that’s a tough one.  The clarinet player is a serious clarinet player, like Eddie Daniels or… It’s not Paquito.  But Eddie is the guy who comes to my mind because of the sound.  Ken Peplowski also has a sound like that, but I’m going to say Eddie, even though I’m probably way off the mark.  It’s somebody that really is deep into the clarinet.  The bass player is really lyrical, and the only guy I can think of…. I don’t know how these guys have played together… I’m sure they  have, but I’m surprised to see them on a record.   Michael Moore is the bass player.  Michael is the only one that…he’s got that… It’s Michael!  It’s hard to explain.  It’s his sound and his concept.  He’s a player like Red Mitchell because he’s very lyrical in his approach, the way he plays the melody.  I’ve never heard him play with the bow like that.  I’ve always loved Michael.  Again, to go back to Bradley’s, Michael played there often.  4-1/2 stars [AFTER] I’ve had the opportunity to play a couple of times with Ken, but I really didn’t get into his clarinet playing until just this past summer when we were all in Japan and I got to hear him play clarinet every night.  I said, “Oh my goodness!”  Ken is a serious clarinet player as well as a marvelous saxophonist.  The beginning was lovely, the way they wove a duet out of tempo together stating the melody and creating the improvisation around the melody and that sort of thing right in the beginning for one full chorus.

10.    Ray Brown Trio, “Starbucks Blues” (Live At Starbucks,  Telarc, 2001) (Brown, bass; Geoff Keezer, piano; Kareem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

Look out, Brown!  Signatures.  Well, we talked about Ray Brown earlier.  But there’s no mistaking him.  The fact is that Ray  Brown has his voice, he has his stories, and he’s been playing like this for almost 50 years at this point.  The first time I ever heard Mr. Brown live was as an undergraduate in college in the mid-‘60s with the great Oscar Peterson Trio with Thigpen.  They came down to Shelley’s Manne Hole, and I’d be down there two or three nights a week if they had a two-week engagement, just to listen to this trio and this wonderful bass player, this incredible master.  Oh, my goodness, that’s almost 40 years ago.  And Ray hasn’t lost anything.  He’s gotten even more… Not just the maturity, but your voice deepens as you age, especially if you allow it to be.  He’s just such a consummate player, such a grandmaster.  Every time you hear him, it’s such an inspiration.  Five stars.  You’re talking about somebody who’s been the central part of mainstream bass playing for a very long time, and still waving that flag and carrying it for all intents and purposes… I hope as many people as possible will see him while he’s still here with us.  Because we’ve lost so many people and it’s so great to have one of the grandmasters still able to do that thing that only they can do.  God bless Ray Brown. [LAUGHS]

11.    Fred Hopkins, “Mbizo” (David Murray Quartet, Deep Rivers, DIW, 1988) (Hopkins, bass; Murray, bass cl.; Dave Burrell, piano; Ralph Peterson, drums)

I don’t know who this is.  It’s funny, because I get this picture of Cecil McBee in my head, but it’s not Cecil; it’s just somebody who would like to play like Cecil, but hasn’t figured out, in my opinion, how to sound like that.  It’s not Cecil.  Right?  Whew, good.  But as a bass player, this player is chasing another kind of a value.  There’s a lyricism  I think the bass player is trying to get to that he hasn’t figured out yet.  Part of it has to do with his articulation and his intonation.  But that’s part of what he’s trying to do.  Oh, wait a minute!  That’s David!  Damn.  That’s David.  Is this Fred on here?  Fred.  That’s who it is.   It is Fred.  It’s David and Fred and…it could be Andrew.  I’ll take a stab and say Andrew.  The piano player might be Dave Burrell.  I probably missed the drummer.  I’ll stick with Andrew, though I’m probably wrong.  Oh, it’s Ralph.  Yeah, he’s trying to play like Andrew.  He plays more like Andrew than he plays like Blackwell.  Four stars.  The thing is, I loved Fred.  I really did.  But the thing is, there was a kind of lyricism he  as trying to get to that I never thought he quite got to.  But what a talent.  And what an unrealized talent!  There were certain kinds of things that I know Fred wanted to do musically that he was not given the opportunity to do.  I think that he was not only underappreciated while he was alive, but I think a lot of people are still asleep as to what he was up to as a musician.  He was amazing.

12.    Wilbur Ware, “Woody ‘N You” (Johnny Griffin Sextet.  Riverside, 1958) – (5 stars) – (Ware, bass; Johnny Griffin, ts; Kenny Drew, p; Philly Joe Jones, d.)

There’s only one Wilbur Ware, just like there’s only one Ray Brown.  It’s marvelous.  I’ve not heard this with Griffin, so this is probably something from the Riverside days.  There are several versions of this tune is on Sonny Rollins’ “Live At the Village Vanguard,” from probably around the same time, and Wilbur takes some solos on that, too, with that sound and that concept.  Again, he’s got his own way of telling a story, and it’s very effective.  He was a good player.  Kenny Drew?  Sounds like him.  Sounds like Kenny Drew playing.  Art Blakey, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin.  Marvelous date.  Five stars.  I have got to give it up!  [AFTER] I was going to say it could be Philly Joe playing his Art Blakey shit, but you know… It had that Art Blakey thing in the beginning.  But now it’s definitely Philly Joe.  Kenny Washington will probably kill me for mistaking Philly Joe Jones for Art Blakey.

13.    Peter Kowald, “Isotopes” (Deals, Ideas & Ideals,   Hopscotch, 2000) – (Kowald, bass; Assif Tsahar, bass cl.; Rashied Ali, drums) – (3 stars)

Again, we have an example of textures.  Obviously notes, too.  But we’re talking about textures and moods.  Colors.  At this point we’re into ostinatos.  Again, this is a hard one to rate.  All the example of “freer” music, if you want to call it that… But he’s using a great deal of the resources available for color… But it’s funny, because we always think of this kind of playing as so different than mainstream playing.  And yet I would submit… This is where a lot of bass players are asleep on Mingus.  Of course, this is not Mingus, so I’m not going there with this.  On “Money Jungle,” Mingus used those kinds of techniques, a lot of colors, where traditionally bass players play something else, something a little more “traditionally”-based.  This person has a lot of ability to play in this context.  It would be interesting to hear whether this person is into notes as well.  I’m not sure this person is.  But again, there’s a different approach to lyricism here, because it’s more about colors and impressions and mood creation and that sort of thing.  Ah, it’s a trio, with bass clarinet and drums.  Whoever this bass clarinet player is, this person loves Eric Dolphy!  We heard David playing earlier, and there’s some Eric in him.  I mean, he can’t help but be affected by Eric when he plays bass clarinet.  But this person in particular seems to have a real affinity for Eric.  It’s the same kind of rhythmic phrasing.  That’s definitely where David and Eric part, in the rhythmic phrasing.  Some of the concepts that David uses are similar in terms of how they approach the bass clarinet.  But Eric could have done something like this, too.  As for the bass player, I’ll say it’s Alan Silva.  But I have a feeling that this is later, probably recently, so I’ll have to back off it.  I’ll give it 3 stars.  For my taste, it gets a little self-indulgent.  Okay, you started a story.  Now, what happened?  Where’s the story?  The story has a beginning, a middle and an ending.  And we did.  On the one with David, with Fred, obviously there were some stories being told.  You may not exactly understand how everybody’s getting around it, but there was something being said there.  Here I thought they were saying something, but then it drifted off.

14.    Charles Mingus, “Mood Indigo” (Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Impulse, 1963/1995) – (5 stars) (Mingus, bass; Jaki Byard, piano; Walter Perkins, drums; Eddie Preston, Richard Williams, trumpets; Britt Woodman, trombone; Don Butterfield, tuba; Eric Dolphy, Dick Hafer, Booker Ervin, Jerome Richardson, reeds & woodwinds)

That’s the sound of Duke.  The pianist even sounded convincingly like it could have been Duke.  That was my first impression.  Of course, this is Charles Mingus with “Mood Indigo.”  There’s only one guy who played like Mingus.  Of course, we know him.  Listen to the lyricism and technical ability.  And he had a different way of… He just did what he did.  And a lot of bass players will not give it up to Mingus as a bass player.  If you ask them what is the contribution that Charles Mingus made in the music, the first thing most bass players say is his composing, and they think of him as a composer and they don’t think of him as a bassist.  I can’t tell you how many guys actually respond that way.  It really used to surprise me once, but now I’m not.  I think it’s because  Mingus is so individual.  Charles Mingus was so strong and had his own… He just would play anything at any moment.  And I think for some bass players, it kind of disturbs them if you’re not playing a traditional part… [LAUGHS] Mingus had such a fertile imagination musically, so he could do anything.  Five stars.  Jaki Byard.  Boy, that’s another soul we miss that we’ve lost.  One of the grandmasters.

2 Comments

Filed under Bass, Blindfold Test, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Ray Drummond

For Dave Holland’s 65th Birthday, a Jazziz feature from 2004

In honor of the 65th birthday of Dave Holland, the master bassist and composer, I’m posting a pair of features—one for Jazziz, from 2004; the other for DownBeat from 2005 in recognition of his victory in the DB Critics Poll.

Jazziz Feature:

“Nine times out of 10 when bass players subbed for Ron Carter in Miles’ band,” Herbie Hancock recalls, “Tony Williams would play really loud to cover them up, so they wouldn’t interfere with what the band was doing. And we would know in the first bars whether they should be covered up or not! But we didn’t cover up Dave Holland. His instincts were adequate and it sounded cool. ‘OK, he’s cool.’ That’s what it was.”

It was the end of the long, hot summer of 1968, and the Miles Davis Quintet was beginning a three-week engagement opposite Max Roach at Count Basie’s in Harlem. Holland, a 21-year-old Englishman with blond hair that fell over his shoulders, had flown to New York from London the previous afternoon, brought his bags to Jack DeJohnette’s apartment, and visited Herbie Hancock to review a few tunes. “I turned up at the club the next night and started,” he recalls. “I didn’t talk to anybody; I was just waiting to see what would happen. The next thing I know, Tony Williams is sitting behind the drums, so I get up and take my bass, and still nobody said anything. And Miles goes up to the mike and starts playing the first tune. It was ‘Agitation,’ which I’d heard on record — really just a trumpet line. And then the band comes in with a fast tempo, and we’re gone.”

Thus, the master bassist launched the still ongoing American phase of one of the most distinguished careers in late-20th-century jazz — one marked by inspired musicianship across a 360-degree range of styles. A high-visibility form-buster at the cusp of the ’70s with Miles’ late-acoustic and early-electric bands, Holland bolted when Miles started moving from abstraction to funk. During the remainder of the decade, he navigated uncharted terrain with fluid structuralists Chick Corea and Anthony Braxton and improvised from the tabula rasa with Sam Rivers. He developed a singular language for solo bass and cello. In Gateway, an open-ended trio with John Abercrombie and DeJohnette, he dissected rock, funk, and world-music grooves. And he demonstrated his bona fides in the jazz tradition as a valued sideman in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and in groups led by such iconic tonal personalities as Stan Getz, Betty Carter, and Thelonious Monk.

Along the way, Holland created the lyric masterpiece, Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1972), conjuring a set of tunes so strong that even the ferocious gusts of Braxton and Rivers couldn’t fracture their melodic essence. Still, Holland eschewed leader ambitions until 1980, when he fell seriously ill with endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. He recovered, took stock, and decided never again to neglect inner imperatives. Within a few years, he’d joined forces with M-BASE rhythmetricians Steve Coleman, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Robin Eubanks, and with them made a series of records containing some of most compelling speculative music of the ’80s. By 1994, Holland — influenced by a decade of metric exploration and extensive “inside” playing with Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock’s trio — was beginning to look for, in his words, “a harmonic context” within which to frame his personal vision of music. As he told me that year in his precise, meticulous manner, “I’m increasingly involved in creating closed-form music with an open-form sound, creating rhythmic disciplines, writing structures which create possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily stumble across in open-form playing.”

By 1998, Holland’s quintet comprised Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, saxophonist Chris Potter, and drummer Billy Kilson — each a virtuoso improviser of formidable skill. All contributed pieces to Prime Directive (ECM, 1999) and Not For Nothin’ (ECM, 2001), albums that document a unit supremely in balance. Never sublimating their voices, they play with an attitude of openness and ensemble community. These albums are filled with episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, loads of polyphony, call-and-response, background riffs, and a global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles. Propelled and knit together by the leader’s relentless grooves, singing sound, and harmonic acuity, they stand as meaningful signposts of what contemporary jazz can be.

“I combine simple and complex elements,” Holland says. “The music has inner layers that make it interesting to play repeatedly over a period of time. I try to integrate the soloist and rhythm section. I write the counterpoint into the compositions, but it continues on seamlessly when we move into ensemble improvisation.

“The tonal density of keyboard often is not what I’m looking for when I structure music. I’m trying to structure it with air. When I write a large chord with a big span, I want there to be space inside it so that it resonates in an open, transparent way. In the early days I didn’t want to use a chordal instrument; I was writing for open form along the Ornette Coleman model of having a very distinctive melodic line, sometimes with accompanying harmonies, which would launch the piece into a certain sound. But as the ’80s progressed, I started to write increasingly in a way that I needed that chordal presence. Guitar with Kevin Eubanks worked really well for me; the instrument has six strings, and you have to play it with a certain sparseness. Vibraphone is the same way; four mallets is the maximum you can expect to play with, so you’re limited to four-note chords.”

Holland extrapolated those quintet concepts for 13-piece orchestra on his most recent album, What Goes Around [ECM], a 2002 poll-sweeper and Grammy nominee. “The idea was to enhance the improvisational aspects of the music with a broader palette of composition and colors, and a larger cast of characters to write for,” he says. “I was particularly influenced by the way Thad Jones wrote so beautifully for all the instruments, so that each part is interesting unto itself, has its own logic and function, and feels like a melody line. I see the written material as functioning like a pianist or vibraphonist might work. The band comes in and provokes or pushes the soloist in certain ways, but they don’t pull the attention away.”

The content meets the hype. Lyric, contemporary, and constantly stimulating, What Goes Around contains some of the most consequential large-ensemble music in recent memory. “At first, I was intimidated,” Holland says matter-of-factly about his decision to take on the project. “I never trained as an orchestral writer; I got my guidelines through listening to records and reading books. But I felt it was time to take on the creative challenge of enlarging the vocabulary I was working on. My wife, Clare, has always encouraged me to rely more on gut feeling — that first reaction to something. It’s helped put me in touch with how I feel about music. I’ve tried to focus in on that musical language in recent years, and not be afraid of romanticism or lyricism. During the ’70s, I was around a lot of ground-breaking music, and I admired people like Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers so much that I felt my pretty little songs were maybe a little too mundane. I’ve stopped worrying about that. Let me just put it out there and, as the Sufis say, ‘plant your banner firmly in the desert sand’ and let people see where you are.”

BREAK

Observed in retrospect, the 40 years of career-shaping twists and turns that comprise Holland’s oeuvre have the appearance of an inexorable conquering march. He began his journey 57 years ago in the inauspicious environs of Wolverhampton, England, a Midlands steel city that in 1951 held some 160,000 souls.

“There’s no music in my family at all,” Holland relates. “My father, who left us when I was about a year old, apparently was an amateur saxophone player in the Army during the war, but I didn’t know him or his family. We lived with my grandparents. My grandfather and uncle worked in factories, and my mother was a secretary. It was a happy house, and I was always encouraged to play music. They’d get me to play my ukulele at family get-togethers and things like that. My mother remarried. It was not a successful marriage, and we had some problems in the family. So I left school when I was 15 to help her out.

“I’d started playing bass guitar in garage bands when I was 13, but it hadn’t occurred to me to treat music as anything but a hobby. I realized that I was making a few pounds a night playing dances and so on, and decided to do it professionally. Then I thought I should hear some other bass players. I found Ray Brown’s name in a DownBeat poll, bought Affinity and Night Train by the Oscar Peterson Trio, and said, ‘I want to sound like that!’ A week later I had an acoustic bass. I memorized Ray’s walking-bass lines, the same as I’d learn the melody of a song, and incorporated the ideas on gigs, reassembling them in my manner. By that process, I learned how to construct the shape of the line, how to lead the harmony, how to support and launch the soloists.

“Jazz connected with me emotionally but also intellectually for the incredible precision and level of playing and for the dialogue that goes on. The idea of conversation has remained a key element for me all the way through. No other music in the Western world is like it because it’s an in-the-moment narrative and it’s different every time. But I had no ambitions to be a ‘jazz musician.’ I just wanted to be a musician and play jazz as one of the things I could do.”

In the summer of 1963, Holland took his first job as a professional acoustic bassist, playing music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller with a 15-piece dance band at resorts in northern England. At season’s end, a tenor player in the band offered him a gig at a Greek restaurant in London. Holland seized the opportunity. The ambitious teenager began to create a new context for his life.

The period is not well-documented, but Holland’s London years contained the seeds of everything he would subsequently do. He dual tracked, sitting in at clubs in the hopes of networking into London’s fractious, rambunctious jazz scene, and took lessons from James E. Merritt, the principal bassist in the London Philharmonic. Merritt encouraged the prodigy to enroll at Guildhall Music School in 1965.

“I played all the time,” Holland says. “I was principal bassist in the school orchestra after the first year. So, apart from preparing for my bass lesson, I had to prepare the bass section for the orchestral repertoire. I played ‘Rites of Spring’ or the music of Bartok with rehearsal orchestras, and did contemporary chamber music by Xenakis, Penderecki, and Stockhausen. There was a big New Orleans revival in England in the ’60s, and initially I played a lot of Louis Armstrong Hot Five and King Oliver arrangements in pubs. It made a lasting impression. I loved the layers of sound when the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone were improvising together. That’s one reason why I loved Ellington and Mingus. My bands have never been about solo after solo, but about collective dialogue.”

Holland also began to absorb music from non-Western cultures, taking advantage of London’s large Indian community to hear concerts by Vilad Khan and Pannalal Ghosh before informed and enthusiastic audiences. “The incredible development of rhythm in Indian music, the discipline of learning these very involved cycles, and how to subdivide them, was very influential,” he notes. “Evan Parker introduced me to the UNESCO series of world-music records, and I listened to music from Tibet, Afghanistan, and Central Africa. The rhythmic complexity and polyphonic aspect of Pygmy music was incredible. I’d never heard anything like the way two voices would integrate the rhythms and tones so they bounced off each other and created a third, completely different element.[“]

By 1967, Holland was one of London’s busiest session bassists. “I was starting to get a reputation as a good reader, and by this point, they knew that I played a lot of jazz,” he says. He received a call to sub on a recording by the John Dankworth Orchestra of Kenny Wheeler’s Windmill Tilter, a narrative composition of nine movements based loosely around the Don Quixote story. “I got to the studio and played this incredible suite of music,” he recalls. “It was complex, and once I listened to the record and heard the detail of the writing, it blew me away. That was my earliest creative big-band playing. I also played with the Chris McGregor Brotherhood of Breath, which had musicians like Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, and Johnny Dyani. The collective spirit of the music had a big effect on me. Chris was influenced a lot by Ellington, by South African traditional music, and by the contemporary music of Cecil Taylor. He mixed free playing with powerful rhythmic counterpoint melodies that he’d write for the band. And the band played them with an incredible freewheeling spirit. It was like no other band I’d ever played with, and the most interesting big-band work that I did in England.”

Holland’s flawless musicianship and utter disregard for dogma enabled him to bridge London’s various cliques. He played with such Eurocentric free improvisers as Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, and Trevor Watts, as well as with post-boppers like John Surman, Tony Coe, and John Taylor. After 1966, he participated in high-level encounters after-hours at premises formerly occupied by tenor saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott. Sometimes he arrived directly from gigs with the likes of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, or Joe Henderson at Scott’s new venue, where pianist Pat Smythe had recruited him for the house rhythm section, with drummers Tony Oxley and John Marshall.

“To me it’s always been important to play for the music you’re playing,” Holland remarks. “In 1968, I was finishing a month-long engagement at Ronnie Scott’s with Pat Smythe behind a singer named Elaine Delmar, opposite Bill Evans, who had Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. It was high-level playing — standards, nice arrangements, and so on. Miles came into the club fairly early one night and stayed. I presumed he was there to hear Bill and didn’t think twice that he’d even be listening to us. So it didn’t faze me very much, and I kept playing as I wanted for that context. As I was going up to the stand for my last set, Philly Joe Jones — who lived in London at the time — came up and said, ‘Dave, Miles told me to tell you that he wants you to join his band.’ I think had I done anything else than enhance the situation to the best of my abilities, Miles would never have offered me the gig.”

With Miles, Holland learned to be at once anchored and abstract — how to set up a bottom and also fly. And he developed his skills as a soloist. “One thing Dave got from Miles is the ability to project the intention and sound of his ideas on the instrument,” says Jack DeJohnette, a close friend who first met Holland at Ronnie Scott’s in 1966. “Dave can do a solo and grab people like a horn player. He can get an audience standing on their feet. He learned from Miles how to be consistent and focused, like a ray from a laser beam.”

He also found his instrumental voice. “In London, I would put on different masks, depending on the musical situation,” he says. “I’d listen to Ron alter the bass notes and reharmonize the chords. I’d listen to Ray and try to get that walking feeling and interaction. I listened to Scott LaFaro for the freer dialogue and to Gary Peacock with Albert Ayler for more open-form situations. I listened to Jymie Merritt, who is an unsung hero, but brilliant in the original way he broke up time with Max Roach. I was still in that phase when I joined Miles. Then one night, when Tony Williams was still in the band, we were playing a place called the Black Bottom in Montreal, and I remember suddenly feeling that I was no longer any of those people. Something happened, where I felt a connection with myself. I also started realizing that I wasn’t going to succeed in sounding like anyone else. I came back to New York, and my practicing changed. I forced myself to start from scratch. What’s a major scale about? What do these intervals mean? How are they put together? How many ways can I see to reorganize this idea? How can I break down my rhythmic ideas into a system that will allow me to expand on things I’m already doing? I started getting back much more to the building blocks of the music and brought out the elements I wanted to develop.”

Most importantly, Holland learned to shape narrative from musical flow. “I see theater and music as related in some ways,” he says. “In the theater a cast of characters and scenes and events unfold, one leads to another. Sometimes time is compressed and you suddenly find yourself jumping a couple of years. There are moments of drama and contemplation, and emotional climaxes and then lulls. Miles was a master of this whole element of pace. Each night, on any tune, I experienced a different take on how that development could happen. Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of assembling a sequence of events that takes the listener through an emotional and intellectual journey. What’s important is how you craft that journey and make it work for the listener. In other words, how you portray the music without compromising its elements and language. Ellington’s great suites — like “Harlem Air Shaft” — take you on a trip, a journey through life, a feeling about something. When music works at its best for me, that’s what it’s doing — taking me on a trip.”

BREAK

That three-week engagement at Count Basie’s happened to be Herbie Hancock’s last with Miles. He and Holland would not make music again until 1990, when they toured with DeJohnette and Pat Metheny on DeJohnette’s Parallel Realities project.

“Following that, I expressed to him how much I’d enjoyed it, and he asked if I’d like to do some more things,” Holland relates. “He started calling me for the trio. We played extensively together, and it influenced me deeply. Herbie puts the creative demand on himself to play something fresh every night, even on compositions he’s been playing since the ’60s. That level of improvisation is extraordinary, and so is the dialogue he gets into with the other musicians. He’s taking in everything and throwing it right back out. The joy that he puts into his music somehow released something in me. I was taking music very seriously, maybe too seriously. I don’t mean to belittle seriousness, but seriousness has to be tempered with joy. Herbie brought me in touch with the joy of playing music in a special way.”

Hancock returns the compliment. “I put Dave in the category of Ron Carter,” he says flatly. “That’s the top. He carves out his own territory, which is just as valid as what Ron does. He has a sound I happen to like – very rich. And I like his time, where he places the notes when playing walking bass. But he doesn’t depend on walking. He plays different rhythmic and melodic things — even accompanying the piano — and knows when to move from one to the other. He knows all the stuff harmonically, and he’s very intelligent and open, and responds quickly. Adventurous, too; not afraid to venture into unknown waters. Maybe the key word is balance. He’s an extremely well-balanced bass player, top to bottom — it’s just the way he is. If a bass player is too egotistical or has problems with his own self-assurance or identity, it will affect his playing and, therefore, will affect the rest of the band. Dave is his own man. He’s comfortable with himself, and he’s eager to listen and learn — giving and receiving at the same time. I admire him greatly as a human being. His solid, formidable character, all that love and graciousness and respect for humanity exudes through his playing.”

In spite of all this, Holland, who in 1990 was a household name to anyone with a serious interest in jazz, was still continuing to find it difficult, as he puts it, “to step into the limelight and assert myself in terms of what I wanted to do.”

“As a young man I was quite shy,” he continues. “I would often take a long time to voice my opinion until I saw it was safe to do so. I don’t want to get into psychoanalysis of my childhood, but a lot of things happened then that formulated my approach to dealing with life. Like anyone else, I carried a lot of baggage. Sometimes my democratic and sharing approach would weaken my ability to realize an idea — ‘OK, this is only my idea; maybe I should just let whatever is going to happen, happen.’ Actually, around that time I had a long conversation with Betty Carter. She was like Miles in that she could center in on what was important, and she told me some things that were essential in giving me courage to voice my opinions and be more decisive in following through on ideas. ‘It’s your band,’ she said. ‘Your name is on the music.’”

BREAK

Recorded at the beginning of 2000, What Goes Around is Holland’s inaugural salvo on the big-band front — but probably not the last. “The quintet will remain my full-time project as long as it stays together,” he says. “But I see the big band extending way out into the future as an ongoing challenge.” Last fall, in support of the record, he embarked on a month-long tour of the United States and Europe that served as a platform to develop older compositions and some newer work, including pieces by Robin Eubanks and his old friend Kenny Wheeler. At the tour’s conclusion, he went into the studio with his road-tested unit to make an album scheduled for 2004 release.

“When I started the quintet in ’97 and recorded the first selection of music for the group, I only knew the starting point I wanted,” Holland notes. “I would never have presumed it would lead to Not For Nothin’. In all good bands, the music develops out of the people involved as a group. As the quintet played together, relationships started to appear, and I and the other musicians who are writing have been able to take advantage of the personalities that emerged. That’s now happening with the big band from performing the music every night, which we hadn’t done. Certainly how we use dynamics has developed. Everybody is learning how their own written parts fit in with everything else in the band, which creates a strong, more unified sound.”

That process played out exquisitely during the last set of an exhilarating four-night, mid-tour residence at Birdland. Smiling broadly, his bass firmly planted onstage, Holland struck the downbeat signaling baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan to blow the elemental melody of “Triple Dance.” The trumpets entered with counterlines, then the trombones with another counterline, and the joyful romp — orchestrated by Holland’s endlessly driving grooves and Billy Kilson’s fluent, surging beats — was on. There were no slack moments. The compositions seemed tailored to such distinctive youngsters as Antonio Hart, Mark Turner, Mark Gross, Josh Roseman, and Alex Sipiagin, whose responses propelled the creative momentum. Their deep connection with the music was palpable.

“Miles worked simultaneously at creating a focus for the band but also drawing on the energy and creative power of his younger players,” Holland says. “I’m not prejudiced against older players or younger players; I’m mostly interested in good players. But the player who’s developing and searching and striving gives the music an edge.

“For me, players find each other. You gravitate towards the things that you need to do. And I’ve been fortunate to be in situations where I heard certain players, they heard me, and were interested in working together. Out of that we’ve made some very good music.”

Downbeat Article, 2005:

“I just want dialogue,” says bassist Dave Holland, encapsulating his musical first principles. “The quality of community in ensemble is central to everything I’ve done. Jazz is an in-the-moment narrative, and it’s different every time. No other music in the Western world is like that.”

Musical conversation and endless polyphony permeate Holland’s elegant arrangements on Overtime [Dare2], his second recording with a 13-piece big band and first release on his own imprint.

The title resonates on several levels.

For one thing, Down Beat’s 58-year-old 2005 Critics Poll trifecta winner–Best Jazz Artist, Best Big Band, and Best Bassist–evolved his aesthetics over a long timespan. In the early ’60s he internalized three-horn polyphony performing King Oliver and Louis Armstrong Hot Five arrangements on New Orleans revival pub gigs. He spent 1968 to 1980 on the world stage, improvising extemporaneously on abstract structures and tabula rasa canvases with Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. He applied the freedom principle to multiple-meter structures in collectively oriented ’80s units with Kenny Wheeler, Julian Priester, Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. During the past decade, he’s committed wholeheartedly to chordal environments with a quintet featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonists Steve Wilson, Chris Potter and Antonio Hart, and drummers Billy Kilson and Nate Smith.

For another, Holland commands a slew of time signatures and metrically modulates them into flow, incorporating four-four swing, triplet structures, and enspiriting beats extrapolated from the ritual musics of pygmy society, India, North Africa, and Indonesia.

“Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of how to assemble a sequence of events that takes the listener through a journey,” Holland says. Renowned as a conjuror of beautiful melodies since his 1972 masterpiece Conference of the Birds,  he facilitates the voyage by molding complex rhythms and harmonies to communicate his tales, conveying maximum meaning with a minimum of notes.

To use Holland’s phrase, Overtime is “closed-form music with an open-form sound.” In the manner of Ellington, Thad Jones, and Kenny Wheeler, all consequential role models, Holland presents customized parts, themselves attractive counter-melodies, to his hand-picked virtuosos—augmenting the quintet are saxophonists Mark Gross, Antonio Hart, and Gary Smulyan; trumpeters Duane Eubanks, Taylor Haskins, and Alex Sipiagin, and trombonists Jonathan Arons and Josh Roseman. He propels their solo inventions with surging, interactive basslines, and responds to them with his own intense variations.

“I’m looking first for a strong individual character to their playing, and secondly, an ability to function within a group context,” Holland says of his personnel. “I prefer not to explain a lot. The musicians need freedom to offer their own ideas and concepts, and not be restricted within the frame of reference you give them. Now, having a structure to work from means you can create tension and resolutions against the structure, which would not be there without the structure. But the written music is a starting point. I’ll hear somebody do something I would never have dreamed of; what I hear happening around me directly affects the ideas I play and develop.”

Urbane and articulate, Holland speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs, and stays resolutely on message. He seems loath to acknowledge that he is the gravitational center of his creative orchestra. But his band members note that they take cues, musical and otherwise, from the leader.

“Freedom isn’t something you always know what to do with,” says Potter. “Dave gives parameters–maybe a completely open vamp section on a rhythmic pattern he’s working on–in which you have freedom that feels more free than Free.”

“Dave takes  risks,” says Smith, Holland’s latest drummer. “He plays loose, over the bar, under the time, and wants to see how far we can stretch. It’s hard to mess up, because everyone is searching for something new and exciting to do. Even the mistakes are golden. He’ll sing me some skeletal pattern that launches the music, usually a clave, in 7 or 9 or 11 or 13. I’ll play it, and maybe add something. He’ll say, ‘Keep that,’ or ‘No matter what you do, I want you to hit this.’ But I’m always thinking about that clave.”

Holland never allows experimental imperatives to interfere with projecting a communicative groove. “Dave is able to transform odd meters and have you nod your head even though it’s not on 2 and 4,” says Duane Eubanks.

“I never played much odd-meter music before this band,” says Smulyan, a veteran of the Vanguard Orchestra, in which Holland played in the early ’70s. “On our first gigs, everyone was counting like crazy. After a few years, I said to Dave, ‘I’m getting a little worried. I’m starting to feel it.’ He just laughed. Now we don’t count. It’s a particular language all its own, and you decode it.

“He’s an amazing bass player. He and I play a lot of bass-baritone figures together, and he’s incredible to hook up with—his pulse, his drive, his sense of rhythm, his groove are all so strong.”

Holland is adamant that freedom entails responsibility. “People’s personal lives are nothing to do with me,”  he says. “My interest is that the gig happens the way it’s supposed to, that the band is ready to play, and that the conditions of our contractual agreements are kept.”

“It doesn’t get much better than this aesthetically, so cats won’t act out of line,” says Eubanks. “Dave’s not cocky. He’s very aware who he is, and he’s satisfied with it. Now, if things deviate, he’ll step in. He’s a stickler for punctuality. He’s at least 10 minutes early every time. Usually 15. Once I missed a flight, though I made the gig. He pulled me over, like, ‘Man, take advantage of the situation.’ Even when he’s mad at you, it’s like he’s not mad at you.”

“Dave’s humility grabbed me first,” says Gross. “He eliminates the distance between bandleader and band-member. For instance, everyone knows I love coffee. Backstage at a gig once, just joking, I said, ‘What is this? No coffee back here?’ Dave went to the promoter and said, ‘Mark wants some coffee. What can we do about that?’ I was really embarrassed! Later he asked, ‘Did you get your coffee, Mark?’ I thanked him. ‘Oh, no problem.’ Of course, once you get on stage, he IS the bandleader, but he commands that through the music, not so much through words.

“He won’t tolerate unprofessionalism or disrespect. Once at a festival, the promoters brought out a vibraphone for Steve Nelson that was like a high school toy set.. Dave said, ‘This is not what he plays on; he needs the professional set of vibes that we stipulated in the rider.’ ‘We can’t get them, Mr. Holland.’ ‘Well, I’m not playing.’ Now, this is a huge festival, lots of money involved. He told the band, ‘Stay at the hotel. This gig might be cancelled. Don’t worry; you all WILL be paid.’”

“A few days after 9/11, we flew to Monterrey,” Hart relates. “That’s a testament to how we feel about Dave, because we were scared; nobody wanted to get on the plane. Before we played, he talked to the people about being strong and turning this tragedy around. It wasn’t a spiritual spiel, but I thought his words were needed, to help us understand we need to push forward, do our job and try to bring beauty into the world.”

With the orchestra booked in Europe for the entire month of July, Holland intends to let the market determine his next step.

“We’ve been able to work consistently throughout the year, but I don’t want to overwork the band or put it on the road when conditions aren’t correct,” he says. “I want everyone to feel good about the situation–that we’re paid properly, and play nice venues.”

Asked how he envisions his sixties, Holland responds, “I tend to do things as they come up.” He cites a forthcoming project with Indian percussion master Trilok Gurtu as an example. “I did a solo concert in Sardinia 18 months ago when Trilok was there with his band, and I invited him to join me at the end for a few pieces. We had a great time, and I wanted to continue. We just spent three days working on new music, and our conversation about some Indian traditions of learning the rhythmic discipline in Indian music gave me many new ideas to think about. If you’d asked about my future plans the week before that concert, Trilok was not in them, but now it’s a reality.

“It’s an ongoing journey that hasn’t reached its end. At least for the near future, the quintet and big band will continue, and this thing with Trilok is the next step. Special projects, like my tour last summer with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade, come up periodically. I’ll take it a step at a time, and we’ll see. I’ll let you know when I get there.”

2 Comments

Filed under Article, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Jazziz