Ace of bass: Dave Holland

Boston Globe, September 12, 2008

Consider a conversation with bassist Dave Holland a chance to check in with the state of jazz today. And consider a performance by a Holland-led group, such as the sextet he brings to Regattabar for a three-night stand starting Thursday, as synoptic a take on the music as you can fit into a 90-minute set: its traditions, its possibilities, and glimpses of its future.

Holland is arguably the hardest-working bassist-bandleader in jazz today. Intensely busy and prolific at 62, he currently leads a quintet, sextet, octet, and big band; he has an abundant discography in smaller formats, including several solo albums; and he is constantly popping up in special projects.

And by the way – he’s also the incumbent bassist in old friend Herbie Hancock’s working group. At the JVC Jazz Festival in Newport last month, Holland played with Hancock’s band and also reunited a special quartet that first came together last year at the Monterey Jazz Festival, with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, saxophonist Chris Potter, and drummer Eric Harland.

The sextet that visits next week includes Potter and Harland, along with trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and saxman Antonio Hart. Pianist Mulgrew Miller rounds out the group on the new album “Pass It On,” which is out Sept. 23; for these concerts he is replaced by vibraphonist Steve Nelson.

In any configuration, a Holland group has constant characteristics: a mix of veterans and younger players, including longtime associates (Potter, Eubanks) and new cats (Harland); a confident eclecticism with stylistic contributions from each member; and chops, chops, chops – a Holland band is always at the top of its game.

“I enjoy the different palette in each group,” Holland says on the phone from his home in the Hudson River Valley. “In this sextet, the rhythm section is new; I’d played with Mulgrew and Eric before, but scantily. This was an opportunity for that to happen, still in a small group context but with compositional possibilities. And now, lo and behold, there’s another group getting going that’s a little bigger, an octet. Each one gives you a different context and different colors to work with.”

All but one of the compositions on “Pass It On” are Holland’s. The opener, “The Sum of All Parts,” belongs to Eubanks, who sets the tone with a funky and playful duet with Harland that stretches a couple of minutes before Holland and the others join in. The record proceeds to chart a vast territory of the jazz landscape, from tight blues and swing to open, impressionistic passages, the players weaving in and out and taking their solos, yet leaving behind the mark of a distinctly collective undertaking.

Holland’s own solos are concise; more often, he stays out of the center, guiding with a light touch from inside the rhythm section. It’s an approach to band-leading that makes sense for a bassist, and the relative limitation of ego proves contagious.

In his career, Holland has had the chance to soak up numerous approaches, starting from the inimitable Miles Davis, with whom he worked for two years in the late 1960s – the “Bitches Brew” period. Davis spotted Holland, who is British, at the famous London club Ronnie Scott’s and subsequently invited him to New York, launching his career.

Later, Holland played across the board, from avant-garde work with Anthony Braxton to alongside the great singer Betty Carter. His scope of projects and openness to everything, from traditional to “out” styles, are as thorough as any that exist in jazz today. But, he says, he sometimes forgot to have fun – until he reunited with Hancock in the 1990s.

“I was maybe taking myself too seriously; you get overcome by the sense of import of what you are doing,” he says. “But in the case of Herbie, he’s such a consummate improviser, he refreshes his language every night, and his joy of playing is evident.”

Whether thanks to this or other forces, Holland, though always a respected figure in the music, is now enjoying something of a belated creative heyday, as evidenced by his many groups. And as a leader, he’s assuming the classic mantle of grooming new talents through apprenticeship.

“I’m not on a mission,” he says, “it’s just part of what we grew up with as a tradition. I was fortunate enough to have great teachers both formally and informally. That’s how the traditions are passed on.”

And in a milieu where anxiety and hand-wringing are common – about the music’s economic prospects, about the trade-offs of new technology, about the potential loss of the connection to history or various traditional values – Holland is an optimist. In a music industry in flux, he sees opportunity. He now controls his own imprint, with a distribution deal with a major label; and he is excited about the digital marketplace.

“The ability to download one or two tracks gives the consumer many more choices,” he says. “And it’s good for artists, too; we can now make a 10-minute track and just release it. It’s a direct channel from the source of the music to the consumer.

“Every generation has its challenges to get the music out,” he says. “We have the tendency to look back on the good old days, but not everything was good. Some things were terrible: Musicians had no ownership of their work. We’ve lost some good things, but we’ve gained some good things, too.”