Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Shaking Foundations

Two bassists offer divergent approaches to jazz

By Ron Wynn

APRIL 17, 2000:  The careers of bass giants Dave Holland and Ron Carter have dovetailed only once, but that occasion forever altered not only the direction of jazz, but of contemporary music as a whole. It was in 1968, when Holland replaced Carter in the Miles Davis ensemble. A staunch traditionalist, Carter disliked the electric bass and was uncomfortable with Davis' desire to venture into funk and rock-influenced territory. Holland's facility with either acoustic or electric, and his prior experience with such early fusion units as the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, made him a natural for the sessions that ultimately became the historic releases In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

Since 1970, when Holland left the Davis fold, the two bassists have served as poster boys for the intriguing struggle within jazz circles over content and direction. Carter, a superb timekeeper and magnificent technician, graduated from the Eastman School in 1959, and was a featured member of the institution's Philharmonic Orchestra. He earned early praise for his contributions to Chico Hamiliton's "chamber jazz" group, which also featured Eric Dolphy. While that experience, as well as dates with pianist Randy Weston and trumpeter Don Ellis, show Carter could hold his own in less conventional settings, he has evolved into a champion of the established order. He prefers mainstream dates emphasizing show tunes and standards, and his own bands feature veterans whose compositions and approach reflect the bop/hard-bop nexus.

British native Holland, by contrast, plunged into the avant-garde after the Davis years, joining the quartet Circle with pianist Chick Corea, saxophonist Anthony Braxton, and drummer Barry Altschul. They made challenging, at times explosive music that was resolutely unappealing to all but a small segment of the jazz audience. When Corea split to make records that might reach more than a handful of listeners, Holland moved even more outside. He would eventually cut the landmark date Conference of the Birds with Braxton, Altschul, and fellow free stalwart Sam Rivers. In addition to forming Gateway with guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette, he also found time to do some straight-ahead recording with Stan Getz.

Carter's and Holland's differences extend beyond music: Carter is always impeccably dressed and has appeared in several clothing ads; Holland is a renegade who probably wouldn't dream of wearing a suit on his CD cover, let alone in a magazine. But both men share interesting similarities as well. Holland is just as prodigious a player as Carter, and both are exceptional cello stylists. They're also accomplished musicians in non-jazz idioms--Carter's reputation in classical circles almost equals his jazz pedigree, while Holland has cut sessions with several bluegrass groups.

Each bassist has a new release that showcases his musical preferences. Carter's Orfeu was recorded last February and reflects the influence of his recent travels to Brazil; the disc also includes two Afro-Latin numbers, plus one quasi-classical outing. Holland's Prime Directive offers the latest from his critically acclaimed piano-less quintet, which he has led in various incarnations since 1982. While both releases are nicely engineered and produced, Holland's has a fresher, more adventurous sound than Carter's.

Orfeu does contain one surprise in the presence of guitarist Bill Frisell, a freewheeling type who can usually be found working in groups like Holland's. There are none of the sonic splashes, distorted solos, or boisterous voicings that normally constitute Frisell's stock-in-trade. He's at ease on "Samba de Orfeu" and "Manha de Carnaval," smoothly working behind the beat rather than in front of or with it. Pianist Stephen Scott, drummer Payton Crossley, and percussionist Steve Kroon make an effective team on Carter's "Saudade" and "Obrigado," with special recognition going to Crossley's crisp textures on "Saudade." Tenor saxophonist Houston Person's fortes are blues and ballads. While his solos are thick and soulful, he's not as confident doing Brazilian fare as he is on the more traditionally rooted numbers, such "1:17 Special." Here, Person's vigorous tone and expressive phrasing are at their finest.

Carter, as always, is brilliant. His lines can be elegant or fierce, but they are never ponderous. He navigates tricky tempos and quick rhythm changes as smoothly as if playing a basic 4/4 setting, and when he solos, there's nothing flashy or out of place. Orfeu is a solid, occasionally exceptional work, though it doesn't have anything especially new or groundbreaking to offer.

It becomes clearer what Orfeu lacks upon closer inspection of Holland's Prime Directive. From the opening passages, which include vociferous exchanges between trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Chris Potter, almost every number on Prime Directive ripples with intensity. Forget the usual rap about ECM releases being too somber and stiff: Holland and drummer Billy Kilson catapult through such songs as "High Wire" and "Prime Directive," challenging soloists and adding their own punch to choruses. Vibist Steve Nelson juggles duties; sometimes he's the glue, and on other occasions he gets to stretch out and display his skills. Sandwiched between Eubanks' rubbery licks and Potter's slick refrains, he provides a soft, yet equally assertive presence that more than compensates for the absence of keyboards.

Holland spearheads everything from his bass chair. The mix puts him squarely in the center; sometimes the tunes pivot off his support and other times diverge from his foundation. When he does solo, he's more economical and restrained than he was in the '70s. However, he remains a dazzling player, fully capable of ripping off a surprise or two at just the right moment. In the end, though, Prime Directive is a truly collective work; the unison passages are just as impressive as the solo segments. And though Holland penned five of the date's nine selections, the other four members each contributed one composition.

The beauty of jazz is that neither Carter's nor Holland's approach is right or wrong. It's great to hear first-rate mainstream material, but it's just as vital that more daring composers and players continue to contribute to the lexicon. Fans from both camps should enjoy Orfeu and Prime Directive, though the latter speaks more directly to jazz's future than the former does.


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