PRISM August 10th, 2012 from Ulli Gruber on Vimeo.
At this milestone of Dave Holland’s career — the forty year anniversary of his debut, seminal free jazz album Conference Of The Birds — his prolific catalog as a leader since has included jazz of nearly every stripe, but noticeably missing has been a full-on foray into jazz-rock. It’s not as if Holland is required to do that, the British bassist, composer and leader has been successful without going there. Nonetheless, it seems a little strange being that he was Miles Davis’ bass player during the time Miles made a headlong jump from acoustic jazz to electric fusion, and Holland was present on the innovative Bitches Brew sessions.
That puts Holland in an exclusive club with Keith Jarrett, another member of one of Miles’ groundbreaking early fusion bands who afterward went on to pursue an extensive solo career avoiding fusion. But — far as I know — Holland never publicly shunned the music, his seems more of a case of his restless muse simply leading him to other places.
And now, his muse has belatedly led him to that spot where he was last firmly planted in 1970.
Prism, the album, is both Holland’s latest band and his latest record, which is set for release next week. Prism, the band, made its debut last year at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, and as Holland has done with his prior bands, he draws top drawer talent in assembling this one: Kevin Eubanks (electric guitar), Craig Taborn (piano, Rhodes) and Eric Harland (drums) complete his new quartet.
Astute Holland fans recall that his association with Eubanks traces back to the late 80s, when the guitarist participated in another Holland quartet, the one that made the excellent Extensions. That was solo Holland’s closest brush with rock-jazz at the time, although that album’s “Black Hole” may have been the only track that actually qualified as having overt rock properties. However, Eubanks’ rock tendencies couldn’t help but to push the whole, otherwise acoustic band in that direction. Today, with primarily the help of his old musical partner, Holland finally makes an entire record that could be called rock-jazz fusion.
One notable feature of Prism shares with Extensions aside from Eubanks is the democracy imposed by Holland: everyone contributes at least song a piece and are pushed to play at the outskirts of their abilities (Eubanks has made some great records including his own 2013 release The Messenger, but with Holland he’s at his very best).
This is music that with anyone else manning the low end would be doing it an electric bass. Holland, however, is forceful enough on double bass to not only hang with amplified instruments but also thrive in such a setting. Any doubts got bulldozed over from the opening track “The Watcher”, where already, we have the nastiest groove ever associated with Holland. But Holland’s hallmark group interplay is just as immovable a force. Eubanks’ gruff guitar tone is the match to Taborn’s scratchy Rhodes tone. Eubanks is underrated as a straight ahead rock guitarist and ironically within the context of complex harmonies such as here and on other aggressive cuts on the album, he gets to show it off.
Songs that are rhythmically and harmonically entangled find a place on this album too, blurring the markers that signify was kind of music this is; Taborn’s “Spirals” is like that. It has a serpentine melodic progression, but retains a rock edge in spite of Taborn on acoustic piano because of Eubanks and a muscular rhythm section. For Harland’s “Choir,” Eubanks makes his guitar mimic a B3 to a festive tempo that flips over to a swinging rhythm and back again, a split personality feature also found in Eubanks’ “Evolution.” There, the tune alternates between a smooth RnB groove and a tougher, faster rock segment that eventually dominates.
Sure, there’s a much groovin’ as there is swingin’ but at the core a Holland fundamental remains: lively coaction among all performers, spinning like a multitude of gears spinning in a complicated piece of smooth running machinery. “The True Meaning Of Determination” demonstrates the approach with a sinuous Taborn/Eubanks unison path. While Holland and Harland get down with a crackling, funky procession, Taborn on piano performs a two-fisted solo matches the raw might of Eubanks’ own, preceding solo.
Moodier pieces such as “The Color Of Iris” prevent any monotony from playing balls out all the time from setting in. A darker mood is set by Taborn’s piano and Eubanks makes his guitar gently weep like the polished pro that he is as he weaves his way around Taborn. Every time Holland solos, as he does during this track, he constructs a story with a beginning, middle and a tidy ending, and does so with a great lyrical sense.
Holland, with absolutely nothing left to prove, is entering his fifth decade as a leader still taking chances with a record that is certain to stand out in a deep, consistent and challenging discography. If Prism can be considered Dave Holland’s conception of jazz-rock fusion, then we need more of this kind of fusion.
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Prism is due out September 3, by Holland’s Dare2 Records imprint.
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