In the 60 or so seconds between the announcer disappearing and Dave Holland strolling onto the stage, the crowd grows increasingly impatient. A single cough encourages an army of apparent asthmatics to clear their lungs, wheezing in protest at having to sit for an entire minute without being entertained. It feels more like a school assembly than a well-furnished hall full of the well-to-do.
But the British star jazz double-bassist, when he eventually makes his appearance, is gentle and softly spoken. “This is a perfect room,” he proffers, “and you seem like a perfect audience.” After looking at his instrument fondly and phlegmatically for a few seconds, he begins to pluck and thrum.
It’s a fast-moving track, and people soon begin nodding along. His playing is strong but dextrous; to someone with my level of technical nescience, it seems like not a note is out of place. Frequently we see intense facial activity: he gurns at exciting moments, and at points we half-expect him to grunt with exertion. The song has swing, and is genuinely catchy.
The next track is a Glen Moore number, but its bassline bizarrely recalls that of Eno’s Third Uncle. Holland’s left hand is bending notes, tripping and fidgeting its way down the instrument’s neck. He’s making the music catchy – a smart move when you’re playing to a room packed with people who probably know next to nothing about the workings of a double-bass, and would like to be hooked in. But he soon briefly jettisons this approach for an interlude with a bow, its slow, steady moments lending the lugubrious sound a cinematic elegance.
Four songs in, and we’re in free-jazz territory with a rendition of Miles Davis’s Solar. Holland, who was a member of in Miles Davis’s band in 1970, has abandoned the bow, his rhythms much freer now, with no clear time signature. His fingers are darting all over the place; at one point, practically gyrating, he plays like a man possessed. Incredibly rapid at points, the piece is actually very dynamic in tempo and volume. At one point in the next number, he twangs a string a few times, producing a sound like a didgeridoo’s. The recurring theme now is the minor-key arpeggio, and his approach to melody and rhythm here is not unlike Ornette’s. Holland is having a lot of fun.
Around the halfway point, the maestro tips his hat to Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, another maestro’s hat-tip to Lester Young. Holland gives a tender rendition pregnant with thought and emotion, though for fans of the original Mingus track it is strange to hear it shorn of horns. The bassist brings out its slinkier, sexier side, even moaning Mingus-like at one point. His technique, often dazzling, is as hard to follow or predict as his transatlantic accent.
He begins to talk about Hooveling – the name of his next composition, and a term invented by his friend to describe walking briskly through the streets of New York City without bumping into anyone. The piece’s mood and rhythms certainly match its title, the notes tiptoeing and skipping calisthenically through the air. It’s a fun little ditty, but shorter and more two-dimensional than most of the music that has preceded it. Its successor, a quiet, delicate tune composed by Holland under some Californian redwoods, provides a tranquil contrast, almost elegiac in tone but respectful rather than mournful.
Holland’s first group’s first album was called Jumpin’ In; he regales us with its title track, an accessible thing whose pretty melodies and riffs keep appearing only to vanish just as quickly. There’s some very rapid picking in the middle of the piece, which in this solo rendition harbours an almost classical intensity towards the end, recalling some of Holst’s or Wagner’s more grandiose moments.
His encore is, by his own admission, “sentimental”. It doesn’t seem particularly inspiring – its dynamism seems almost directionless. There’s tension and energy there, but it doesn’t seem particularly sure of where it’s going. Perhaps it’s something I missed – one man in the audience moans with delight as the final string is struck.
It’s been an evening of evanescent, ethereal music. Once you leave the auditorium the fragments of melody slip from the memory, but as long as you’re in the room the atmosphere is supercharged. This is one of the special qualities of the double-bass – it draws you in, forces your concentration, makes you follow its rhythms. And then it’s gone, and you feel a peculiar melancholic release. If you’re ever afforded the opportunity to spend 90 minutes in a room with only a talented double-bassist for company, don’t pass it up.