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Sons of Miles
DAVE HOLLAND: The Power Behind The Throne
by Mike Zwerin
28 January 1999

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.

Playing 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.

Listeners 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 music.

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 everybody.

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."

Holland's 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."

Dave Holland

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."

He 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."

Although 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."

"Steam also comes out of the cracks in the concrete," I said.

He 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 open mind."

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 mind."

"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 guitar.

"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.

"The 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."

Photo: Dave Holland.
Credit: Christian Rose

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