Uncommon Denominator

Jazz critics can rarely be counted on to echo the predilections of the public. But to borrow a Bill Evans album title, everybody digs Dave Holland. In JazzTimes’ 2004 readers’ poll, Holland was crowned best acoustic bassist and credited with leading the best acoustic group and best big band. Similarly, the bassist has recently received only glowing reviews from critics. Holland’s uncharacteristic absence from JazzTimes’ latest top albums survey can be explained with a technicality: He didn’t release one in 2004.

Holland is hardly the only musician to enjoy such bilateral support, but the bassist makes quite a case study. A participating veteran of jazz’s most divisive era, he achieved recent predominance by adapting, not abandoning, his polemical past. Fusion still figures in his worldview, as does the ’70s avant-garde. So what’s striking about the Dave Holland Quintet-apart from its explosive energy and technical virtuosity-is the favorable unanimity it enjoys, unforeseen by any of its antecedents. There are Holland fans who denounce jazz-rock and disparage the loft scene, even though trace elements from both sources can be found in his current groups.

It was in the summer of 1968 that Miles Davis effectively spirited a 21-year-old Holland from the bandstand at Ronnie Scott’s. The British bassist played upright acoustic with Davis through the following summer, before switching to electric. This was a span that saw the trumpeter’s band mutate from a jazz quintet to something else entirely. Holland savored the group’s heavy bass ostinatos, copped from funk and soul-and still does, as evidenced by the DHQ. Consider “Frelon Brun,” one of Holland’s first recordings with Davis, which features the sort of churning straight-eighth propulsion the bassist would later harden into a style. Another tune from the era, “Splash,” shifts tempos and time signatures before settling on a funky strut in 5/4 time; it could pass for an entry in Holland’s band book today. (Hear both cuts on Columbia/Legacy’s The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, a vital three-disc set.)

The other face of Holland’s artistry during those years was avowedly more abstract. He joined fellow Davis sidemen Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette in free-bop explorations, and with Corea he cofounded Circle, an influential experimental quartet that was short-lived but widely heard. In 1972 Holland recorded Conference of the Birds (ECM), a brilliant outing featuring multireedist Sam Rivers and Circle cohorts Barry Altschul (drums) and Anthony Braxton (reeds). Over the next few years, he worked often for Braxton; for six months in ’76, they played in a touring quartet with Altschul and trombonist George Lewis that, in some small measure, anticipated the DHQ. The line connecting Braxton’s Quartet (Dortmund) 1976 (Hatology) to Holland’s Extended Play: Live at Birdland (ECM, 2003) is tenuous, but it can in fact be traced. For one thing, there’s the distinctive frontline pairing of sax and trombone and the liberating absence of piano. More significant, there’s the syntactical complexity of Braxton’s compositions-which employ, among many other things, extended forms, uneven bar lengths and intramural polyphony.

Critics and aficionados, a group predisposed to favor these subtle strands of Holland’s DNA, have cheered his five-piece ensemble since its 1999 debut. This applause can partly be understood as a response to the touchstones embedded in the group: aggressive jazz-rock grooves (a la Davis), tangles of counterpoint (mainly Braxton) and cogent but courageous improvisation (both). Of course, the DHQ also has other muses-like Charles Mingus, who presaged not only Holland’s penchant for polyphony, but also his full-bore bass heroics. When Holland introduced a 13-piece orchestra at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2000, it was Mingus who sprung to mind.

Meanwhile, many of Holland’s fans embrace his music simply for its sky-high standards of musicianship, which is reason enough. In trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Chris Potter, Holland has two modern masters of their instruments-and a horn section capable of breathing life into his intertwining lines. In vibraphonist Steve Nelson, he has a flexible harmonic element and a physical link to his avant-garde pedigree. And in drummer Billy Kilson, he has a dynamo. Altogether, the group pushes boundaries but never breaks them; fusion and free alike are subsumed in a process that’s explosive but streamlined, like a sports coupe in high gear.

Machinelike precision is an even more prominent characteristic of the Dave Holland Big Band, which makes its sophomore statement with Overtime, on Holland’s own Dare2 label. It’s a fine big-band album, but I’ll be surprised if Overtime receives Holland’s customary across-the-board acclaim. The intricacy of charts like “Bring It On” and “Happy Jammy”-odd-metered bookends to the bassist’s “Monterey Suite”-will rightfully knock out a good many fans. Others who hear the album, including a substantial bloc of critics, will rue the diminished presence of an indefinable headlong quality-call it precariousness, or peril-that marks so much of Holland’s work. That quality is what still tethers the bassist to an earlier, less established career. Knowing Holland, it won’t take a back seat for long.