Circle: Paris Concert (ECM 1018/19)

ECM 1018_19

Paris Concert

Anthony Braxton reeds, percussion
Chick Corea piano
Dave Holland bass, cello
Barry Altschul percussion
Recorded February 21, 1971 at the Maison de l’O.R.T.F, Paris
Engineer: Jean Delron
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The short-lived Chick Corea outfit outdoes itself in this 1971 live recording. A delicate piano intro primes us for an extended rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” to start. Once Braxton throws himself on top of incoming bass and drums, however, what began as contemplative awakening quickly turns into a spastic jaunt into more upbeat territory. The gnarled unity of the quartet paints in bold strokes, all the while flirting with total breakdown. Braxton’s perpetual motion and uncompromising tone make a superb tune out of a great one. “Song For The Newborn” gives Holland a moment in the spotlight. Swaddled in all the innocence of its title and bound by a mature sense of structure, this is an engaging interlude to the Braxton/Corea duet that follows. Corea’s frenetic style in the latter works its way through a host of rhythmic options before settling into a row of block chords. Braxton’s heady phrasing tears a page from the book of Coltrane, while his solitary diversions crackle with the urgency of a broken mirror, as yet unframed by the bastion of mundanity. Altschul delights in “Lookout Farm,” in which he dives headfirst into his percussive arsenal. The tinkling of icicles and cowbells in an open field give way to an extended solo, thus providing ample segue into “73 506 Kelvin 8,” a beautifully convoluted organism that could only come from the mind of Braxton. Below its cacophonous surface pulsates a vast network of instrumental veins, through which flows the passionate immediacy that is Circle’s lifeblood, and from which Holland’s rapture sings with detail and imagination. “Toy Room ­- Q&A” (Holland) boasts Corea in notably fine form, leaving plenty of elbowroom for Braxton to flex his reeds. The freer aesthetic crashes in on itself by the end, leaving us craving a familiar foothold. This, we get in the standard “No Greater Love,” capping things off with notable turns from all.

Corea busts out with some of his most captivating fingerwork, proving himself finely attuned to the mechanisms of his caravan at every rest stop along the way; Braxton’s “Pharaonic” sound titillates the ear; and one could hardly ask for a tighter rhythm section at one’s side. As a collective unit, Circle doesn’t so much make music out of as inhabit its raw melodic materials. This recording is a lasting testament to a vibrant formative period for ECM. The audience’s enthusiastic reactions give the listener the feeling of being present in the making of history.

<< Keith Jarrett: Facing You (ECM 1017)
>> Chick Corea: Piano Improvisations Vol. 2 (ECM 1020)

Dave Holland/Derek Bailey: Improvisations for Cello and Guitar (ECM 1013)


Improvisations for Cello and Guitar

Dave Holland cello
Derek Bailey guitar
Recorded live at the Little Theater Club, London, January 1971
Release date: October 15, 1971

One’s not half two. Its two are halves of one… All lose, whole find.
–e. e. cummings

If you’ve ever picked up a guitar and played those short strings between the end of the neck and the pegs and wondered if one could make viable music with that kind of sound, then look no further, for that is precisely the pinpoint aesthetic captured on this rare recording. These improvisations are miniscule and entomological, whispering with the nocturnal regularity of a cricket. Holland and Bailey shift from pops and plucks to more sustained tones at the drop of a hat, but always with an ear keenly tuned to the other player. The two take full advantage of extended techniques to create a wide palette of sounds. These are delicate pieces, but no less full of verve and character for their utter precision. Sometimes the music is incredibly expansive. Other times it seems to implode, by turns galactic and subterranean. Because both musicians are so skillful at what they do, one can truly appreciate the spontaneous dynamics of their playing, the ways in which they react and prompt each other into action. They are never afraid to take separate paths, for they always seem to rejoin, and in doing so they add seemingly endless variety as the energy flows and ebbs. It’s always fascinating to hear Dave Holland’s earlier work, and this meeting with Bailey is certainly an archival treat.

<< Stenson/Anderson/Christensen: Underwear (ECM 1012)
>> Chick Corea: Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 (ECM 1014)

Dave Holland/Barre Phillips: Music From Two Basses (ECM 1011)


Music From Two Basses

Dave Holland double-bass, violoncello
Barre Phillips double-bass
Recorded February 15, 1971 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineers: Kurt Rapp and Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 1, 1971

If you know the work of Barre Phillips, Music From Two Basses will be familiar, if not tame, territory. The more recent Dave Holland fan, however, may be in for an intriguing surprise. Through a mounting cluster of clicks, flutters, scrapes, and plucks, two bassists who now seem to inhabit rather different ends of the improvisatory spectrum find common ground here, and the results are extraordinary.

“Improvised Piece I” is dry and cracked around the edges, while “Improvised Piece II” is more like the genesis of a dream. The technique in both is phenomenal, covering a wide range of extended gestures, but always with an emphasis on the miniscule. “Beans” (Phillips) introduces us to the album’s first composed material, and is an exquisite journey laced with drones and bowed harmonics. The heavily applied reverb adds a cool distance. It is a celestial moment in an otherwise terrestrial program, and gone too soon. “Raindrops” (Holland) brings us in the opposite direction, plummeting toward earth in a gentle precipitation. “May Be I Can Sing It For You” (Phillips) is the most straight-laced piece on the album, and therefore the shortest, while the vague “Just A Whisper” (Holland) brings us back into a more delightfully abstract interaction. “Song For Clare,” another Holland piece, closes the set on an affectionate note and leaves us hungry for more.

This is free jazz of the most intimate persuasion. These two bassists may be household names, but here we really get a profound early glimpse into the microcosmic hearts of their instruments. This is an engaging album from start to finish, and one that could easily fail in so many other hands as it skips, sings, and chortles its way through a surprisingly vast program. There are no grand sweeping gestures, no complete sentences, nothing lost or gained. A taxing listen for some, but sure to delight the rest with its whimsical, focused atmospheres.

<< Paul Bley: Ballads (ECM 1010)
>> Stenson/Anderson/Christensen: Underwear (ECM 1012)

Fraying the Thread: Dave Holland Quintet Live Report

Dave Holland Quintet

April 18, 2010
Buckley Recital Hall @ Amherst College

Dave Holland bass
Robin Eubanks trombone
Steve Nelson vibraphone, marimba
Chris Potter alto and soprano saxophones
Nate Smith drums

As a graduate student with limited time and financial resources (a redundant statement, if ever there was one), I find that going to live shows has become all too rare a luxury. Lack of a car further constrains my options, and so I am deeply appreciative of the musical opportunities that a college community brings to the hermetic academic. Where else could I have experienced the wonders of Zakir Hussain, stumble upon a free performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and bask in the sounds of the Dave Holland Quintet for less than the price of a good dinner, all within a three-week period?

The venue for the latter was a packed Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College. And while the space didn’t seem at first particularly suited for a quintet of such explosive caliber, a few knob-turnings from the sound technician worked out the kinks soon enough. After a brief introduction, Holland and his crew took the stage. The man himself offered a quip or two to an eager audience before jumping right in.

“The Balance”
The opening bass line was pure Holland: a mixture of delicate highs and thrumming lows that set the tone with unmistakable immediacy. Through this freshly strung loom, vibes, soprano sax, and trombone strung their own vivid threads. The group began by scaling up the improvisatory ladder with practiced precision, holding fast to a tight core of unity while venturing just close enough to the edge to gauge a drop to certain doom. A trio of drums, vibes, and bass provided solid ground for the horns, with ample room to roam. This led into an artfully performed passage of more staid harmonies before Eubanks broke free, jumping nimbly through invisible hoops as he dyed this mosaic with a guttural ferocity that was as viscous as it was effervescent. Just as the tension rose, Smith brought his drumming to a halt, stopping and starting playfully, paring down the music to a variant trio. With full support from bass and drums, Nelson loosed a barrage of half notes that shimmered like a hailstorm in sunlight. The horns returned on the heels of a violent drum kick, which soon relaxed into a head-nodding interplay of rim shots and hi-hat, bringing the ensemble down for a slow and easy landing.

Next up was a tune from the latest Octet CD, Pathways. An extended and soulful bass solo lulled the crowed into an intimate silence. Holland’s fingers made the lows sing, milking the amp for all it was worth, while his highs fluttered like wings. Just then, our rapt attention was broken by a cell phone, which Holland simply smiled away as Eubanks placed a hand on his chest and mouthed, “It’s not me.” Before long, Smith picked up the beat, ushering the others into more distinctly composed material as alto sax and trombone leaped across rim shots and cymbal rides. Potter’s first major solo of the evening began tentatively, as if he were putting out his feelers before releasing a modest joy. Bass and drums kept pace like a fast-moving train. Suddenly, the mood changed, and I felt like I was in a dingy nightclub rather than an immaculately kept concert hall. Smoke billowed in the darkness with every turn of phrase. Potter let out the occasional impassioned screech, each strategically placed amid clusters of glistening notes, then moved into a series of sustained tones over a spate of superb drumming. This paved the way for a ferocious solo from Smith, who elicited nothing short of gunshots from his snare. Yet Smith also proved his finesse with a delicate splash of cymbals, to which Holland added a few lobbing glissandi, before locking into a full-fledged groove. Holland eased his way in, ushering the theme’s return, which was then picked up by Potter. The group ended with a staccato burst in triplicate.

“Souls Harbor”
Holland broke out his bow for the opening lines of this Potter number before Nelson and Eubanks began hanging a series of triads from the composer’s smooth lead. Vibes asserted themselves with a bass-like steadiness. Holland swapped bow for fingertips and plucked his way out of a fluid intro. Potter and Eubanks laid out the main theme in perfect unison. After splitting into two-part harmonies, they rejoined as a single voice against Nelson’s ostinato. Eubanks’s emergent solo was one of the evening’s most idiosyncratic, sounding like a foghorn yearning to sing its woes across the waters. As the music gathered speed and energy, laced with incredibly dexterous runs, vibes crept along the cove with their slow return. Potter’s reappearance made for some subtle harmonization before Smith cracked open a livelier beat. At this point, Potter and Holland wandered off into an abstract, but strangely lyrical duet. To this question, Smith and Nelson had an expansive answer, fraying the thread of their overall sound into its determinate strands. Potter’s sax screamed, making its voice known above the din even as it parsed itself. And before we knew it, everyone was back into thematic material, closing in solid agreement.

“Walking the Walk”
This newer composition began in a solid triangle of bass, drums, and vibes. With the entrance of the horns, we were treated to a mélange of moods before settling into an arid sound, opened even wider by Nelson’s gorgeous four-mallet stylings. This was the vibraphonist’s time to shine. With the barest shades of the opening proclamation, he tread confidently in familiar territory and receded as Holland took the cue. The shuddering high notes, resplendent vibrato, and rumbling lows of Holland’s solo filled the space with the instrument’s deepest possibilities. All the while, Smith relegated his playing to the rims. Sax and trombone once again took center stage and ended in a paroxysm of beauty.

Holland’s quiet count kicked off “Secret Garden.” Hot off Critical Mass, this tune continued the dune-laden dynamics. It was at this point that Nelson finally turned to the massive marimba at stage left, lending a certain organic flair to the overall sound. With the theme dispensed, Holland and Smith rode easy to let the light of Eubanks break from behind the clouds. Eubanks stretched his breath to its limits, occasionally singing into the trombone for a chorused effect. Smith, meanwhile, tore a page from the Joey Baron handbook and drummed with his hands. Soon, it was just Smith and Holland for the latter’s brief solo turn, singing upward as the horns and vibes reinstated the path upon which they first led us in this taxing yet scenic journey. A flickering strand of bass and marimba brought us to our destination.

Last on the menu was “Step Tunes,” another new piece that showcased the quintet at its most blistering. After a brief blast from the horns, Nelson took over with some incendiary support from Holland and Smith. The brass returned, and presaged the most stellar solo of the evening from Potter, which brought thunderous applause from the crowd. Nelson was left to pick through the aftermath and find still more to salvage. His notes ran up and down with the abandon of a child at play, letting the occasional sustained note ring through the body. The return of Eubanks and Potter was almost anticlimactic after such inspired displays of joy. After a concise drum solo, the musicians converged and, with a glance from Holland, fell back into the center.

The audience wasn’t about to leave it at that, and cheered for more. Thankfully, dessert came in the form of “Easy Did It,” a short but sweet encore dedicated to the city of New Orleans. And indeed, it was like mashing five jazz clubs from The Big Easy into one delectably harmonious confection. The quintet blossomed with a soulful theme, punctuated by a couple of low blasts from Eubanks and painted with broad strokes from Potter, whose penultimate cries on soprano signaled the winding down of the evening’s song.

In its current incarnation, the Dave Holland Quintet is an unstoppable force. Seeing them live deepened my understanding of their relationship and their process. Holland’s bass lines are like supremely fashioned entities whose entire physical makeup is as taut as the strings that tell their life stories. He smiles, eyes slightly squinted, and leans into his bass with the lilt of a conductor’s baton. Eubanks plays with closed eyes, his entire body rocking into the balance of every piece. Smith is constantly looking up, as if to let his drum kit whisper and shout of its own accord. Nelson dances left and right, navigating the broad terrain of his instrument with the deftness of a boxer. Potter’s approach is rather different, as nonchalant as it is utterly embodied. It’s as if he refuses to lock himself into any motif for too long, more interested as he is in finding out what awaits just around the corner. He is always turning and weaving through the crowd of his musical ideas, pickpocketing whatever interesting tidbits he can along the way and exhibiting them with minimal mitigation. I also enjoyed seeing how the musicians performed as a group, sometimes leaving the stage or standing off to the side when they weren’t needed, coming back at just the right moment to an unspoken signal. Their synergy was complex without being complicated.

The quintet’s compositional astuteness was also clearly evident. These were far from the concise ditties that characterize so much of what constitutes jazz in the mainstream. Rather, they were (with the sole exception of the encore) 10- to 15-minute epics of form, freedom, and style. Theirs is beautiful, heart-wrenching music that stands firmly in tradition even as it thinks over the horizon. Their sound is rich, evolved, and never content to type itself. Although Holland has, with the founding of Dare2 Records, deviated from his 34-year stint with ECM, he nevertheless carries with him that same communal spirit instilled in him through his seminal work with the label. He is always about dialogue, even when playing alone, for jazz is nothing without response.

Gateway (ECM 1061)

ECM 1061


John Abercrombie guitar
Dave Holland bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded March 1975 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With this record, John Abercrombie both repaved and detoured from his staid path. He could hardly have been in finer company, and the combination seems to have fanned all sorts of flames within him. DeJohnette and Holland string an array of tightropes across which Abercrombie balances his way into previously uncharted territory.

“Back-Woods Song” evokes a mood that would come to define some of the later work of Bill Frisell. To be sure, the sound lives up to its name here as it awakens like an alligator poking its head above some swampy surface. Holland solos wonderfully here, after what some have rightly remarked to be a rather “creepy” turn from Abercrombie, ricocheting delightfully off the cymbals. This is very muddy jazz: viscous, opaque, and teeming with unseen life. “Waiting” is essentially a slow trek for bass that ushers us into “May Dance,” in which Abercrombie’s fingers frolic across the fretboard. Thus he brings a clear sense of continuity and of dynamic energy, scraping away at the surface of possibility and peering into its inner depths without fear of censure. The ensuing frenzy of activity resolves into a delicate bass solo, during which Abercrombie takes a much-needed breather. Holland cleverly mimics Abercrombie’s style, underscoring that same cluster concept of note value and melodic ascendency. “Unshielded Desire” is exactly what it claims to be. It starts with a percussive bang like the finale of a fireworks display and Abercrombie runs with all his might to capture every dying spark as it trails in the sky. The music goes around in spirals, flirting with a center it can never reach no matter how far down it goes, until it is like a compass gone haywire in the Bermuda Triangle. Next is “Jamala,” the most downtempo cut on the album. This is a moody masterpiece and a fine lead-in to the magical, epic, and incendiary “Sorcery I,” which rounds out the set.

I actually fell asleep the first three times I tried listening to this record. For whatever reason, its quirky energy seems to have had a soothing effect on me. Odd, seeing as I cannot imagine a more invigorating guitar trio. Abercrombie has such a distinctive sound and it has to do not only with the amplification and choice of instrument (or pairing thereof), but more importantly with the fragmented aesthetic he brings to his playing. Abercrombie is a “sensual” musician—that is, a musician of the senses. He seems to rattle his own bones, bringing to his improvisation a sense of detached wonder. Those looking for the laid-back Abercrombie may find this an unexpected outing. I do think it’s worth taking a chance on, however, as the freer moments herein might very well surprise and inspire. Despite a seemingly haphazard approach, Abercrombie remains tightly knit to the music’s immediacy. His is an electric sound that stays close to its acoustic roots, while Holland’s solos rise and fall, never straying from the core beat, as if strung to DeJohnette’s limbs.

It’s difficult to explain this kind of jazz to someone who has never heard it, and almost as difficult to describe it as someone hearing it for the first time. It is chameleonic music of the highest order. The wealth of possibility represented here in the art of improvisation expands the ear, the mind, and the heart of the listener, cracking the window of one’s worldview open just that much more to reveal the joys of lived experience. And maybe that’s what jazz is all about: experiencing the human spirit and the infinite ways in which it contorts itself to the tune of some intangible creativity.

<< Ralph Towner: Solstice (ECM 1060)
>> Collin Walcott: Cloud Dance (ECM 1062)

Corea/Holland/Altschul: A.R.C. (ECM 1009)



Chick Corea piano
Dave Holland bass
Barry Altschul percussion
Recorded January 1971 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Kurt Rapp
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 15, 1971

A.R.C. documents Chick Corea at the cusp of a major leap of intuition. Whether that transition was worthy of being recorded is debatable. The Wayne Shorter tune “Nefertitti” (sic) kicks things off to a grand start. Unfortunately, with the next tune, that spark seems to fade as quickly as it is ignited. With the exception of “Vedana” (Holland), the rest of the album is filled out by Corea originals which, while they may not have the same panache, do provide plenty of joyful moments…just not enough of them.

This cursory set churns out some gritty work from Holland, with Corea and Altschul also in fine form, yet overall the album lacks structure. There is little progression from one cut to the next. For instance, “Thanatos” intrigues at first with its slow fade-in until one gets a handle on the rather disjointed goings on. The subsequent fadeout comes across as formulaic and feels more like an afterthought in the studio than part of the original spirit of the piece.

Original cover

Considering the shoes these three musicians had to fill, not only of their own mounting reputations but also those of the established greats with whom they had played in the recent past, their timing or energies simply may not have been on the same wavelength when this session was recorded. Still an album worth checking out, if not for its historicity, then at least for its stellar opening.

<< Robin Kenyatta: Girl From Martinique (ECM 1008)
>> Paul Bley: Ballads (ECM 1010)

Dave Holland Quartet: Conference Of The Birds (ECM 1027)


Dave Holland Quartet
Conference Of The Birds

Dave Holland bass
Sam Rivers reeds, flute
Anthony Braxton reeds, flute
Barry Altschul percussion, marimba
Recorded November 30, 1972 at Allegro Studio, New York City
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As someone who began with ECM New Series releases long before easing into the world of ECM proper, my initial explorations of the latter led me to decidedly contemporary avenues of jazz and to a particular fondness for the many Norwegian projects represented by the label. Only in recent years have I begun to pan for gold in the massive back catalog that was produced before I was born, and among the many fine nuggets to emerge from the sediment is this most splendid effort.

Phenomenal wind work from Braxton and Rivers makes this a decadent studio treat, grinding out equally captivating solos, whether over a tight rhythm section or in the throes of a looser backdrop. Though easily billed as a “free jazz” album, Conference Of The Birds remains a fine testament to a relatively accessible strand of the form. A child of the post-bop generation, Holland takes the back seat for the most part and lets his reedmen take center stage. Whimsical elements such as the unexpected coach’s whistle in “Q & A” comingle with the solid relay races of “Four Winds” and “See-Saw.” The title track provides the most delicate textures on the album with its effortless flourishes and gorgeous bass intro, acting as a fragrant palate-cleanser before launching us into the ecstatic free-for-all that is “Interception.” Each cut has its own distinct flavor, lending a vibrant anticipation to every break.

Conference Of The Birds is special to me for at least three reasons: (1) It evokes an important period of musical and political transition that I will never experience directly. Moods are wrought in iron and blown glass, so that no matter how many times the structure is destroyed, one can always melt the pieces down again into something new. This was a time in which the entire world was either on its knees or throwing off the shackles of normalcy in favor of unrestricted forms of expression. This duplicitous spirit of oppression and liberation is embodied perfectly in the sounds. (2) One can trace a dark and lasting thread from Holland’s early work to the present. This set in particular allows us to see his foundational strength, the whimsical order for which he has become so well known. (3) This album is, for me at least, one example of what makes jazz so uplifting: a spirit of shared knowledge, a hermetic seal ruptured for the sake of communal awareness, and the letting go of one’s own inhibitions amid an unforgiving social order.

Offer it your hand, and you may be surprised where it leads.

<< Stanley Cowell Trio: Illusion Suite (ECM 1026)
>> Paul Motian: Conception Vessel (ECM 1028)