One of the most important musicians to emerge from the British jazz scene during the 1960s, bassist Dave Holland stepped onto the global stage at the tender age of 22 when he replaced Ron Carter in the Miles Davis' legendary quintet that included pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Tony Williams, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
Along with guitar phenomenon and fellow Brit John McLaughlin -- who Holland had played with extensively in London -- the bassist would make important contributions to the trumpet player's pioneering excursions into electric jazz. In addition to playing on such landmark albums as In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Live Evil, Holland held down the bottom end in Davis' live group for two years until his departure in 1970.
Though he came to fame with a plugged-in Fender bass guitar in hand, Holland has spent most of the four decades since playing acoustic stand-up. Whether working with luminaries like Stan Getz and Davis alumnus Chick Corea or pushing the boundaries of jazz alongside avant-garde saxophone mavericks Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers, Holland established himself as brilliant composer and one of the modern masters of his instrument. Since the 1980s, he has split his time between leading his own acclaimed groups and teaming with an array of jazz giants (Hancock, guitarist Pat Metheny, the late tenor great Joe Henderson) for tours and album projects. Possessing an ear for talent on the same level as his mentor Davis, Holland's bands have served as a proving ground for a new generation of talent like influential alto player Steve Coleman, drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, and vibraphonist Steve Nelson.
For his latest project Prism, the bassist teams with guitarist Kevin Eubanks (a collaborator from Holland's blazing late '80s/early '90s quartet), keyboardist Craig Taborn, and volcanic drummer Eric Harland to revisit the kind of high-voltage electric jazz he once explored with Miles. Spotlighting Taborn's kinetic Fender Rhodes runs and some of the most corrosive guitar work Eubanks has unleashed in his career, the group's eponymous album Prism delivers an energetic sound that looks back to a time before the word "fusion" was primarily used as a culinary descriptor. Holland recently spoke to All Shook Down by phone from his home in upstate New York to discuss the genesis of the band and his return to electric jazz ahead of a performance by Prism at the SFJAZZ Center this Sunday.
I'm really enjoying the new Prism album. I wish more people that have ties to the original Miles Davis fusion era would touch on this kind of sound. It seems like it's mostly younger musicians who play that kind of electric jazz these days...
Yeah, I guess there are quite a few different folks that are doing it. This is really about the people who are on the record and wanting to play with them. It started off really wanting to have an opportunity to play with Kevin again. We played for a few years in the late '80s and early '90s and recorded a few albums together. Then we had a long period where we didn't do much playing, but we stayed in touch and we're good friends.
Last year we were talking about doing a project, so I gave him a call and said "How about this?" Eric and Craig are both musicians who I've really enjoyed working with and listening to. I just thought it would make for a very nice sounding band to have the four of us play together.
I know I've had a lot of comments about the echoes of the '60s and the '70s, but it really wasn't in my mind to do that. It was really coming out of the music and the people who were playing. I asked everybody to write, because I knew everybody in the band was a great composer as well as a great player. I thought it would make an interesting collection of music if we had several different perspectives on the potential of the music that we could play together.
So that's how the material came together. During the first rehearsals, we started to define the sound of the band just out of what we were playing and how it was going. That was how it happened. It was quite organic really. It wasn't a thing where I said "Oh yeah, it's time I did a record with electric instruments" or anything.
But looking at your discography, this must be the first record that's had Fender Rhodes on it since that initial fusion era, right?
Oh yeah, it is actually. In fact, I very rarely use piano. I've only had piano on one record, which was the sextet record that the late, great Mulgrew Miller was on. The record was called Pass It On. We did that four or five years ago. I haven't really worked a lot with keyboards at all. Jason Moran and I were involved in a group we called Overtone with [saxophonist] Chris Potter and Eric Harland on drums. We're still planning on doing some more work with that band.
I think the other significant thing is this is the first record that I haven't had a horn player on; every record I've done has had at least one and usually more. To me, that's the significant change in sound.
Beyond the electric element, my initial listens to the album had me thinking the material was a bit more aggressive. But then I went back listened to Extensions from 1989 with Kevin and realized you often had a few songs with a similar frenetic energy to them...
I like music that has good energy and positive energy and interplay in the band. To me that's what excites me in the music. But we've got some quiet moments on the record too, as I'm sure you've noticed. There's a beautiful ballad that Eric wrote called "Breathe" that we end the album with, in fact. And there's another really beautiful song that Kevin wrote called "The Color of Iris."
I always try to present music that has several different moods and ideas, so I'm hoping that comes across on the CD as well. But I like music that has energy that makes you sit up and want to move. I like music that has a strong rhythmic element.
Another thing that this album reminded me of -- I think it's probably the mix of Kevin's distorted guitar and your acoustic bass -- was some of the pre-Mahavishnu Orchestra albums John McLaughlin recorded, like Extrapolation or Where Fortune Smiles, which you played on. You already said this album isn't a conscious return to that early fusion sound, but it still made me wonder: have you talked to McLaughlin about playing together again?
John and I you mean? You know, I've put out feelers from time to time, and we've sort have kicked the idea around, but it's never really come together where either of us could make it happen. John and I were in a band together in London before I came to New York in '68. He came to New York a little bit after. And then we did some playing in New York and did that album [Where Fortune Smiles] with [vibraphonist/pianist] Karl Berger happened in New York. But we haven't really gotten around to that. It's something I'd be open to of course; I love John's music and John's playing. But I feel very happy with the guitarist I'm playing with right now [laughs].
I know the jazz world can be very fluid as far as recording units only coming together for single recording and tour. Do you foresee Prism as being something that you'll continue to pursue beyond the current album and tour?
Well certainly we are, yes, because next year we've already got work planned and some already scheduled as well. We've got a major tour in the summer. We've got some work in the spring and we're working on some performances for the fall of next year. It just all depends on the musicians involved. As long as we all feel we want to continue with the project, I don't see any reason to stop it.
I've been running parallel projects in my activities anyway. The quintet is something I have ongoing connections with still. We were touring earlier this year. It's been together 14 or 15 years now. And the big band performs from time to time.
This is a band that I'm enjoying a lot. I think it has a lot of possibilities for growing and we're working on some new music. I would think at some point we're going to do another album, especially since this one has already had some very positive reception. So there's definitely interest in the band and the music we're playing. It's already for sure being projected through next year. Beyond that, I can't really say for sure. But at the moment I'm not thinking about ending it, I'll put it that way [laughs].