Bassist Dave Holland has one of the hippest track records in all of creative music. As a young player coming to the United States from England, he will always be able to say that he was recruited to playing in Miles Davis‘ brilliant second quintet (filling the spot held by Ron Carter) after Davis and drummer Philly Joe Jones heard him playing in a band opening for Bill Evans at Ronnie Scott’s, the premier London jazz club.
After such an auspicious start with Davis (live and recorded on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew), Holland divided his time between the different elements of music that most mattered in the early ’70s: free jazz (with Anthony Braxton and the cooperative band Circle including Braxton and Chick Corea), quality roots-pop (he recorded with Bonnie Raitt), mainstream jazz (he played with Thelonious Monk at the Village Vanguard), and intelligent fusion—not only with Davis but then with electric guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette in the band Gateway.
As a leader, Holland recorded one of the great debut recordings of his era in Conference of the Birds, a 1972 quartet date for ECM Records featuring both Braxton and Sam Rivers—music that was free, swingingly exuberant and deliciously beautiful at once. And while he didn’t lead another band on record for 11 years, he returned to ECM in the 1980s and ’90s for a series of dates that featured compositions bridging mainstream jazz with catchy grooves and riveting new players at the music’s edge: Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, Robin Eubanks, Steve Nelson, Cassandra Wilson, and Chris Potter, to name a handful.
These recordings are among the most consistently superb of their era, and they stretched into the new century expansively, with the leader expanding the size of his groups (to quintet, sextet, octet, and big band) and beginning his record label, Dare2, in 2005. His repertory company of band members also expanded to include new voices such as pianist Craig Taborn and guitarist Lionel Loueke, while still featuring friends from 20 years before. One word for Holland’s sound is: ageless. His music has seemed effortlessly cool for 50 years now.
The new one, Another Land, is a collaboration between Dare2 and the new Edition Records, as well as a merging of old and new. In 2016 Holland debuted a new trio at the Village Vanguard featuring his bass, Eubanks’ still slithering guitar, and a younger drummer in Obed Calvaire. This is their emergence in the studio, and it has both the power of a live performance and the care of the studio. Historically, it refers back to the Abercrombie/DeJohnette Gateway sessions in format but adds the wisdom and clarity of Holland’s subsequent four decades and his collaboration with Eubanks.
At its core, it is the best new Dave Holland recording in a long time.
Performances like “Gentle Warrior” are perfect examples of how Holland develops earworm themes that also give the players room to fly. The propulsive six-note acoustic bass part that opens the tune sets up its irresistible groove (one or two chords on a basic mode, which is more than enough for this band) around which Calvaire dances like Astaire. Eubanks feathers it with pretty chords and then states the elegant melody, which leads to just a dash of sweet harmonic color. It is so powerfully catchy that you are excused for not realizing it is in 5/4 time. After the initial theme is played twice, Holland and Calvaire shift the groove into a more dancing, less funky (and more obviously 5/4) feel, allowing Eubanks to repeat the melody with a vaguely flamenco flair as well as adding a more harmonically complex bridge. The leader solos from there, taking us back and forth between feels and sections—but with the sense of thrilling momentum never set lower than GO!
This knack for writing a great bass line, of course, is one of Holland’s renowned talents. We hear it again on the soulful “Passing Time”, which begins with acoustic bass and electric guitar playing a hypnotic line in octaves, a swirling thing that draws our ears in. It spins out into a melody that travels across gorgeous, impressionist chords in a version of 6/8 time, only to have the bass line reappear to set up improvisation. A rising arpeggio bass line establishes the main theme of the title track, too. However, it slithers around a bossa nova/Latin feel colored by Eubanks playing acoustic guitar as accompaniment to his electric guitar lead. It’s equally fun to hear a classic Holland bass line played on electric bass, as on the album-opener “Grave Walker”. He doubles with Eubanks’s electric guitar here so that the tune’s first melody really isthe bass line, and on the bridge, well, Holland takes the pretty melody all for himself.
A good part of what has sustained Holland as such a reliable, creative musician over many decades is the way his music balances wide appeal and a stubborn refusal to get too treacly. A tune like “Another Land” has the wonderful melodic appeal and “pretty” tonalities of a Pat Metheny song/recording—Eubanks is given a lush melody that includes sensuous bent-note moments and gorgeous chords to play. He overdubs both electric and acoustic guitars along with Holland’s glorious acoustic sound and Calvaire’s brushes. At the same time, there is plenty of room inside the composition for creative exploration. It’s more than just a pretty face. (Metheny fans will also want to hear the solo guitar track “Quiet Fire”, where Eubanks plays with subtlety and grace, never rushed, utterly inside the feeling.)
When Holland isn’t “pretty”, he still reaches all kinds of ears. “Mashup” is an irresistible fusion tune, with the trio playing a complex and juiced line at a good tempo, busy and “rocking”, you might say, except that the layers of complexity overlap rhythms in a manner that sounds more like jazz or Afropop than like Yes or Return to Forever. The improvisation opens up into freer territory, with Holland walking at tempo and Calvaire clattering like Elvin Jones as Eubanks sails across with whatever idea comes into his head. It’s a raver, and when Calvaire solos over the guitar lick, there’s just a smidge of the fireworks-showoffery that made fusion so fun and appealing in the 1970s. But those guys rarely played the style with so much creative abandon. “Bring It Back Home” is, aptly, a backbeat-driven gospel tune, with Holland sounding unusually greasy as he lays down the bottom and Eubanks playing with blues phrases across the length of a long solo that fades away at the album’s end. Holland lets you end it by tapping your toe.
The trio also can get pretty far out on a limb. “20 20” and “The Village” are both minimal themes that open up to expansive improvisation. Because the tunes themselves aren’t clogged with too many chords and the instrumentation of a trio allows plenty of open aural space, the improvisations from the leader and Eubanks go in a million directions. Eubanks’s “Village” solo snarls and disgresses at the same time, mixing rock chording, blues licks, lickety-split fusion runs, and—can you believe it?—a bit of the slightly atonal distorted chaos we might associate with more “out” players. Holland is hardly afraid of some crazy guitar action, and it all works over his cool electric bass slithering beneath Calvaire’s insinuating rhythm.
Listening again to 1975’s Gateway trio, there are also catchy moments but more often the open-ended exploration that Another Land sometimes allows. “May Dance” from 1975 has a lot in common with “The Village”, and “Sorcery I” provides Abercrombie with a giant landscape for searing distortion and blues exploration, not unlike what Eubanks is chasing 46 years later—and still getting the boost of a solid Holland bass line. The difference, perhaps, comes down to the context of the era. 1975 invited a bit more guitar heroism as well as more impressionistic noodling (“Jamala”), while 2021 suggests the value of “Passing Time”‘s careful construction.
Both incarnations of Holland’s approach to the guitar trio are powerful and timely. And anything that brings us more of Kevin Eubanks in daring settings is extra cool—maybe his TV time with Leno on The Tonight Show somehow disqualified him in the jazz press from seeming to possess his own spot along the Metheny-Scofield-Rosenwinkel-Frisell continuum. Another Land grabs your lapels and won’t let you forget that Eubanks has a wide and total command of his voice and that Holland’s music still sounds fresh after 50 years—with a younger drummer who is beautiful in the conversation. It is a pleasure and a dare to tune in.