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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Listening again to ‘Emerald Tears’

I was teaching bass today and brought a few great bass recordings to the class to play for the students. Among them was Dave Holland’s solo bass masterpiece ‘Emerald Tears’. I remember hearing this a year or two after it came out in 1978, and being enthralled by it, though I had very little idea what the hell was going on technically – either in terms of the playing of the bass or the musical concepts underpinning the recording. Coming as I was at that time from a very bebop oriented background, a lot of the music on the recording sounded very free to me, and free music (or what was known in one catch-all phrase by beboppers such as myself as free music) was not something I usually had a positive reaction to. But this was different - although I didn’t understand the structures or musical modus operandi of this recording it struck me forcibly that each piece had a tremendous sense of forward motion. And despite my lack of understanding of it, for reasons I couldn’t explain, listening to it made always me want to go and practice – it still has that effect on me!

Much later I had the chance to study with Dave Holland – by this time I was much more au fait with more open styles of playing and much more into it as an improvising concept too. So to have the chance to study with Dave was both exciting in the anticipation, and revelatory in the detail. Dave was a great teacher and what really impressed me was the way he organised his materials, both as a teacher and as a player. I knew he was a great straight ahead player and I guessed that he would have a lot of concrete suggestions to make concerning playing within changes and form – and indeed he did. What I wasn’t expecting however was how he took exactly the same approach to more open playing. I was expecting him to be more vague about this, maybe to do the ‘it’s just a feeling’ kind of thing you sometimes hear from ‘free’ players. But not a bit of it – he had a slew of suggestions to make, lots of devices and strategies for developing motifs and ideas in the more open waters of music that he swam in so comfortably. By this point I was very familiar with Dave’s playing and recordings, but even so this revelation of being able to apply such methodical ideas to apparently open form music was a serious eye-opener for me. Armed with this knowledge, the forward motion sensation I had felt instinctively when I first listened to Emerald Tears made intellectual sense – I could now hear the application to the music of the kinds of things Dave talked about in his classes. So I could appreciate it all the more now and get into it in a way that had not been possible before.

But despite my evolving appreciation of this recording, it was a while longer before yet another aspect to Emerald Tears became apparent to me – its place in the history of the evolution of jazz bass. I guess this ‘long view’ is something that becomes more apparent as you yourself spend a longer time with the music. It’s now almost thirty years since I first heard Dave’s masterpiece and the hindsight that spending this kind of time with the music can bring has allowed me to see the importance of this recording and its place in the history of the bass.

This is a revolutionary recording – it revealed a new way to play the bass, a way that was both in the tradition yet innovative in all kinds of ways. First of all the idea of a solo bass recording was in itself incredibly forward thinking. If you’re going to make a solo bass recording, and you’re not going to use any studio/multi-tracking/electronic techniques, then you’d better have a lot of creative and technical weaponry to bring with you! Because you’re armed with just four strings, your technique and your imagination. And Dave more than rises to that challenge – Emerald Tears is a tour de force of both technique and imagination. But even leaving aside this fantastic musical achievement, another thing that’s really interesting about Emerald Tears from a bassists point of view, is that Dave charted an individual course between the two major streams of modern bass playing - one which was independent of, yet referential to both.

In the early 1960s the tradition of bass playing in jazz split into two major streams – one following in a direct line from Jimmy Blanton and including players such as Ray Brown, Paul Chambers and Ron Carter. The other stream was instigated in the late 50s and early 60s by Scott La Faro who showed a generation of bassists a whole new way of playing the instrument and interacting with the other musicians. After La Faro’s premature death this tradition was continued by such players as Gary Peacock, Chuck Israels and Eddie Gomez. Bassists who appeared in the mid-60s and afterwards would usually identify with one or the other school of bass playing, and the influence of that school could usually be clearly heard. But what Dave Holland did was show another way – one that used the rhythmic power and resonance of the traditional school, while exploiting the innovations of the later one.

But not only did he draw on these two traditions, he also brought a bunch of original things of his own to the bass playing table – extended arco techniques, extensive use of motifs, and an incredibly developed rhythmic sense. In this latter regard, the use of rhythm on Emerald Tears is extraordinary - at times, in a kind of extended recognition of one of its major functions in jazz, the bass is almost used like a percussion instrument. I’ve never heard a more powerful exposition of the rhythmic possibilities of the bass in creative music than on Emerald Tears. Small motifs are developed, extended and mutated through the use of rhythm, and the rhythmic possibilities of an instrument with such a large body and long string length are exploited to the full.

And this is one of the things I enjoy most about Emerald Tears – it is a BASS recording! So often bassists try and emulate other instruments in terms of soloing – the bebop masters who translated Charlie Parker’s language for the bass, the modern electric players who are as fleet as any guitarist or saxophonist. But this recording could only have been made by a bassist – huge amounts of it are untranslate-able to any other instrument. On Emerald Tears Dave Holland not only puts together a great programme of music that holds the attention of the listener for all of its 40+ minutes, but he also makes a recording that celebrates the bass as a unique instrument with qualities and characteristics that can only be found on the bass. For that alone all jazz bassists should be grateful.

If you haven’t heard/got it already, check it out -

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