Slipped Discs: Dave Holland, Patti Smith and the Chicago String Band

Dave Holland Quintet / Not for Nothin’ (ECM, 2000) 

In 1968 Miles Davis decided to shake up his band once more by picking the English bassist Dave Holland to replace the brilliant Ron Carter in his new assemblage of hot young players. Holland recorded two albums with Davis, both gems of modern music: In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Holland was only 22 at the time. Since his tenure with Davis, Dave Holland has distinguished himself as the most gifted double-bass player of his generation and, along with Charles Mingus, the most talented bassist composer in the history of jazz.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Holland played some of the most adventuresome music of the free jazz era. In free jazz it is often the bassist who keeps the other players in some kind of chartable orbit. And, although Holland can push the boundaries of improvisation farther than anyone who has ever played his instrument, he has never lost his ability to swing or his love of deeply harmonic grooves. In this incandescent session from the fall of 2000, Holland leads a highly sympathetic group of musicians that includes Steve Nelson on vibes, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Chris Potter on sax and Billy Kilson on drums. The quintet sheds a piano for Nelson’s vibes and it makes all the difference in the sound. The music is crystalline and sharply textured. The mood is airy and bright, oddly optimistic. Holland deftly shifts the rhythmical forms from sultry Latin beats to blues themes, from charging bebop to hints of North African malouf. Instead of prolonged soloing, the improvisations break out into dialogues, call-and-responses, intimate conversations between sax and vibes, vibes and trombone, sax and drums, all threaded together by Holland’s ingenious melodies. This is music that subtly challenges the listener in unexpected ways and offers fresh rewards each time it is played. Not for Nothin’ just might be the first real masterpiece of the 21st century.

The Chicago String Band / Chicago String Band (Testament / 1994)

Our conception of the country blues is largely shaped by the prejudices of music ethnographers such as John Lomax and his son Alan, who tended to record the work of solo artists singing brooding compositions and work songs accompanied by guitar or, more rarely, piano. In an effort to catalogue and codify black “folk” music, the musicologists of the 30s and 40s manufactured the image of the “tortured black artist” and promoted musicians in the vein of Son House or the great Skip James. In reality much of the country blues–the blues played at wedding parties, in roadhouses, at BBQs–was dance music performed by groups of musicians in so-called string (and later jug) bands. This music was lively, the mood upbeat and often raucous. In 1966, record producer Pete Welding tried to recreate this near-extinct style by tracking down five veteran blues players in Chicago who in their youth had played in string bands in the Delta:  Johnny Young on mandolin, guitarist John Lee Granderson, harp player John Wrencher and the amazing Carl Martin on violin. Many of the songs on this disc are familiar, such as “Hoodoo Blues” and “Weeping and Moaning,” but here they are completely transformed by the distinctive sound of the mandolin-playing and, especially, by Martin’s energetic fiddling. The format may be primitive, but the playing sure isn’t. This vital recording is a neglected relic from a lost tributary of American music.

Patti Smith / Outside Society (Sony / 2011)

Patti Smith, who recently ran off with the National Book Award for Just Kids, a memoir detailing her intense friendship and artistic collaboration with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is surely one of the most unlikely stars in American rock music. Smith is often labeled a rock poet or a literary punk. But those are simplistic categories contrived for the convenience of lazy critics. Smith willfully defies genres and that’s a huge part of her enduring appeal as an artist. She seems as comfortable fronting the two-chord thrashings of the Ramones as she is grappling with the complex harmolodics of Ornette Coleman. Her voice, limited in range as it is, conveys an authentically protean persona, unlike the hollow change-artist theatrics of Madonna and David Bowie. Though she’s a skilled lyricist, some of Smith’s most popular and inventive performances have been stripped-down covers of songs by Van Morrison (“Gloria”), Bob Dylan (“Changing of the Guard”), Lou Reed (“Perfect Day”) and Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”). This new collection, which culls 18 songs from her years with Arista and Columbia, offers merely the thinnest icing from a multi-layered cake. But, oh, how sweetly it goes down.

Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest book is Born Under a Bad Sky. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3

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