I wasn’t entirely serious in a review deploring the prospect of “Homecoming” by the Dave Holland-John Abercrombie (& friend) partnership being repeated on this selection from Holland’s dates for the ECM label. The version here isn’t that one, it should at once be said. The one here has the beautiful Julian Priester on trombone, in one of the sort of small big bands the man from Wolverhampton likes to lead these days. He has recorded with a properly big big band — see the paperwork to this CD — but that was an even more special occasion.
The Abercrombie/Holland/DeJohnette trio (1994) gets to open, with an invitation to the dance as potent as any I can remember. Halfway through a Glasgow Jazz Festival gig which was his quintet’s first at the beginning of a European tour, the jetlag deliquesced, and Holland and Billy Kilson swung as much as I’ve ever heard anybody swing. There’s no need to wait for that level of swing; it comes at the start of this CD, Abercrombie materialising from within Holland’s bass, and doing his relatively introvert version of a guitar style born with the blues and too often at the mercy of subsequent extraverts.
Kenny Wheeler (trumpet) and Steve Coleman (alto) are with Priester on the nearly eight minutes of “You I Love” (1983) which follows. Steve Ellington’s the drummer (Marvin “Smitty” Smith replaced him with the rest of the men on the above-mentioned “Homecoming” of 1984). Holland characteristically does nice things with a three-person front line. Wheeler has a lovely sound, as indeed does Coleman, master of a considerable palette. Each hornman has his variation on playing with a lighter, almost floating tone on his respective instrument. They sort of drift upward together, keeping in touch through looser ad-libbed passages between solos and the tuneful ensemble Holland provided.
“Inception” is from a set of cello solos Holland recorded for ECM, with the occasional foray into Jacqueline du Pré Englishnes and Elgar, and a little touch of Bach. On bass Holland isn’t so blatant about being a superlative musician. His enormous warmth and shade of phrasing are liable to secure a number of new sales for his 1982 Life Cycle set, and this solo coming after the band title lets the listener identify something of the characteristic Holland melodic and rhythmic shape and phrasing — which is to say his compositional voice. Individual soloists realise the musical values of performances by engaging individually with that extra factor — above notational patterns.
Robin Eubanks is especially effective with his big-toned trombone’s angularity in “The Balance” by the band German friends of mine called Wilson, Nelson and Kilson: the first two both Steves, the former here on ethereal soprano and the latter on ethereal vibes. Billy Kilson is a phenomenal drummer, and Holland himself shows what a big musician he is, applying his deep and low translucent bass tone to move things along. He plays with proper perspective on his own music’s melodic inspiration, I mean he puts so much more into it as its performer.
Cassandra Wilson sings “Equality” with Eric Person (alto) and Gene Jackson (drums), beside Nelson (Dream of the Elders, 1995), with Holland massive and as passionate as the singer and the words of this Maya Angelou freedom now hymn. Person’s solo reflects glory on himself and on Holland’s relation to the alto saxophone, an instrument his music favours with remarkable opportunities — and he does find soloists who can realise them. Steve Coleman has the duty and privilege of playing that horn on “Nemesis”, with Kevin Eubanks mediating between the front and the symbiotic partnership of Holland and Smitty Smith on drums (Extensions, 1989). Regardless of any technical complexity or modality of the musical frame, the soloists realise a joyous uplift which is never far away in Holland’s music. Kevin Eubanks sings on his guitar. Smith drum-solos with an immense forward impetus. He swings. I have to wonder how far the completeness of Dave Holland’s music derives, not from his experience after Miles Davis had plucked him away from his native England, but in the a depth acquired already in England. He was always a considerable player — it’s just worth pondering how he attained to such depth and richness within a mighty inspiration.
On “Shifting Sands”, Chris Potter has taken over from Steve Wilson, and has an almost oboe part in the ensemble with Robin Eubanks’s almost Euphonium sound. The measure here is the volume level of the leader’s bass, on a gentle somewhat oriental theme where Nelson’s vibes are like little bells (Not for Nothin’, 2000). The bass also sets the fine dynamics of “Four Winds” (Triplicate, 1988) in trio with Coleman and DeJohnette, before a final lift-off.
The 1997 band reappears in the title track of the 1988 Prime Directive set, which combines intensity with relaxation in music which brings George Russell to mind. Robin Eubanks is bass-trombonish gruff, at length. Nelson explores harmonies and has some remarkable rhythmic interplay with the drummer, which the trombonist takes up.
On the 1984 “Homecoming” Holland may even be more inventive than the wondrous Kenny Wheeler, who has the ensemble lead in this somewhat Caribbean composition. Wheeler joins in a group improvisation which dances in the streets of some otherworld. If you are going to play free, lyricism like Wheeler’s is recommended, strongly. Holland’s solo follows a resumé of the scored ensemble with an exploration within its structure. The bass solo doesn’t end, the others join in, and instead of turning back to the composed theme the ensemble build toward it as the climax of the performance. This is not a sandwich of meat between slices of bread, it is an essay in perfect balance.
Thirty years we go back for the closer, “Conference of the Birds” (1972), with Barry Altschul on marimba and percussion, and — with masterful intonation — Sam Rivers on flute and Anthony Braxton on soprano each sounding very like the other. Somewhere along the line played by Holland’s bass the obbligati of the two wind players become a duet. When Altschul moves to marimba Holland’s central part alters in colour and emphasis, for he’s carrying the rhythm of a now drummerless ensemble. It’s entirely delightful, and while it might be cited by critics who’d have liked more earlier Holland, its “soft, sweet, plenty rhythm” (Jelly Roll Morton’s phrase) is a wonderful conclusion to this composer and very great bassist’s very (for want of a better word) beautiful music. If you don’t know him already — do not miss him now!