Bass players hold the secret power behind the throne. They
control the one absolutely essential element, a role not exactly
obvious to everybody. This pleases them a great deal.
bass requires a peculiar personality. You can generalize about it with
less danger than most generalizations. Despite the occasional
grandstander, they are team players who flourish in the background.
Bassists are less competitive than other instrumentalists.
go to the bathroom during a bass solo. And there has to be some
masochism somewhere in anybody willing to lug that coffin around. They
are not looking for glory; they know, if you don't, that they already
have it. Constructing their central bridge between melody, harmony and
rhythm, they are by necessity involved with totality. They control the
Dave Holland controls it with more intelligence,
power, variety and modesty than most. If you're absolutely forced to
pick a "best," he'd be a prime candidate. He has made a
living in all sorts of contexts including Bach, Trad jazz in his
native Britain (he now lives in upstate New York), Eurojazz and M-BASE
avant-garde music in New York City. Everything, everywhere, with
He took a great deal of pride in his years with
Miles Davis. A few years after Miles died, he went on the road with
the Miles Davis Tribute Band - Herbie Hancock, Wallace Roney, Wayne
Shorter and Tony Williams. I asked him what he thought about Miles's "Doo-Bop,"
an unfinished album completed after the trumpeter's death. It is an
example of a new style being called by an unstylistic name - in this
case "new jazz swing." It is rap combined with a chord here
and there, horns and jazz feeling. Industry spokesmen predicted it
would become a "contemporary expression of the jazz idiom"
and "give birth to a new generation of progressive jazz
musicians." (It did not. Never mind.)
"I'm not a
good person to ask about Miles," Holland replied. "Because
every time he played his horn, even only one note, magic happened for
me. It didn't matter what was under or over it."
voice resonates like the weathered wood instrument he plays. His
verbal cadence swings, punctuated by frequent smiles. He is accustomed
to thinking in terms of the bottom of things. So many smart
superstructures have rested on his roots: "Whatever you call this
music and whatever it is, it's still basically only a variation, a
logical extension of the kind of funk James Brown initiated. Music
keeps changing. Each generation has to redefine the elements of
rhythmic feeling. Things have got to change and we have got to be
prepared to recognize those changes."
This reveals a striking capacity for acceptance for someone who
once led a band - John Blake, violin, Fareed Haque, guitar, and Mino
Cinelu, percussion - which was, on the surface anyway, diametrically
opposed to the music we were discussing. They played soft, hypnotic
music based on a variety of traditional elements which, Holland says,
"stressed the feminine aspect. A certain gentleness, an
unaggresive approach which did not go out and punch people in the face
and provoke hysteria. I like there to be some calm in the room."
stopped and then emphasized, a bassist all the way: "It's very
important that you do not make me out to be the leader of this group.
I put the four people together to begin with, but we were the sum
total of our directions. Our strength was diversity, we brought
multidimensional diversity to the music. We were all in it together."
Miles's "New Jazz Swing" was anything but calm and diverse,
Holland considers rap creative when well done and rich and at its
best. He tries to "separate the here and now from something that
will still be relevant in 50 years." He tends to give optimism
the benefit of the doubt:
"Take a Manhattan sidewalk.
New York is a concrete city. Yet wherever you find a crack in the
concrete, something grows out of it. Maybe its only weeds, but that
sign of nature's urge to create is an expression of life force amidst
the barrenness of modern existence."
comes out of the cracks in the concrete," I said.
laughed, and looked at me bemused, as if to say, "if that's the
way you choose to look at life," and replied: "That's true.
But I think there will always be the need to express nature's positive
force. There has never been more or less need, always the same amount.
We're battling a lot of negative things at the moment - incredible
materialism, for example. There is no lack of obstacles. But we've
always had those obstacles.
"I'm an optimist. Because
in a way, the more critical things become, the more creativity strives
to be expressed. Light can shine brightest in the darkest moments. I
don't think we have to worry. A lot of people wish the music was still
like it was in the '50s. There's no way that can be. A renewal may not
take the form we expect. As artists, we have to be sure to keep an
Remembering Lord Buckley referring to
something "straining the limits of our practiced credulity,"
I said: "There's a difference between keeping an open mind and
liking something just because it's new. People are afraid of being
left behind. They feel threatened. If I don't like this music, does
that mean I'm losing touch? Does it interest me really, or do I just
want to make sure I'm still 'with it?' An 'open' mind can be an empty
"As far as I'm concerned," Holland
replied, "an instrument creating sound in a natural unamplified
way is going to be more meaningful than a sampled or synthesized
sound. But I still play bass-guitar. I play it on a tour with Jack
DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny. A composition can be
structured for an electric instrument. I played it the last year and a
half I was with Miles. It was my first instrument, I started on bass
"But the sound of an acoustic bass hits me very
emotionally. My fingers resonating the strings and the wood responding
to that is something very special to me. I like nature, and I like
natural things. That's a personal point of view. But you have to try
and transcend that. I'm not necessarily critical of that other thing.
I may just prefer this particular thing. As long as it's done
artistically, that's my only criterion. You have to perceive the
intention of the music. Music performs many different functions.
relevance of any given musical situation means taking the creative
flows of the individual musicians and putting them together in a way
that makes sense. One thing I learned from Miles is that when a piece
is finished it is only beginning. Every night we would add another
chapter. Songs kept evolving to incredible places. These are the kind
of places I'm looking for. I don't really care what they're called."