One hears stories about jazz musicians who size up other players by the way they walk, talk, carry themselves. Something about the attitude. Well, watching bassist Dave Holland walk onstage Thursday at the SFJazz Center -- perfect posture, a gait both assured and relaxed, and with a smile bespeaking quiet delight -- one might surmise something about his musical character.
This master player's solo recital Thursday was a ridiculously wonderful event, the first of his four shows at the new venue, where he is performing with a different band each night. Thursday, he was the band -- drawing in his audience, giving a 90-minute lesson in the art of listening. He played 11 tunes: steady, balanced, revealing songs phrase by phrase, with clear lines, warm tone, every note a bulls-eye leading to the next with logic, shape, beauty and surprise; with quiet delight. As with Bach, there's a transfixing magnetism, except the language is so different. With Holland -- who came up under Miles Davis and other elder players -- the blues are never far away.
The concert began with "Homecoming," a tune he wrote in the early '80s while touring Britain with his American quintet, his first working band. The piece carries a certain "English connotation," Holland said, and one could hear that sense of Cotswolds contentment, perhaps, of measured merriment. The bassist introduced the melody in stages, ending each phrase with a sturdy chord -- a series of perches, or homecomings, gradually opening into the full song and its merry-go-round motion. Holland's improvised lines set up a contrasting motion, a brisk upright walk amid the spinning. He closed with a flourish: a big strummed chord, à la flamenco, or bassist Jimmy Garrison.
He made all this appear very easy, as if he were just puttering around. For his listeners, it was a look into his imaginative processes, which come together so organically, and his craft, which is so impeccable. It felt intimate. In only its third week of operation, the new venue is comfortable without being overly fancy, and its excellent acoustics perfectly suited this event. Holland said he felt as if he were performing for family in his living room. As he cradled his bass, or wrestled with it, his warm and sturdy sound filled the room.
He told stories -- about moving to New York in 1968, the year he joined Davis's band; about befriending other bass players, including Glen Moore (of the band Oregon), who composed "Three Step Dance," the next tune in Thursday's recital. Here, he set up a quaver-drone with the right hand, playing the slippery start-stop melody with his left, slapping at chords and reiterating this dance's underlying bluesiness. It felt very late-'60s with echoes of Jeremy Steig or the Blues Project. Whereas "Little Girl I'll Miss You," a ballad by saxophonist Bunky Green, allowed for other effects -- pure melody, sparely offered, ending on an unresolved chord yet conveying the equipoise that underlies Holland's whole concept, a balancing of forces.
There's a sense of foundation to everything he plays: Holland favors the bass's middle and low registers. Playing an untitled tune -- improvised from scratch -- he offered a brooding riff, moving it up and down and around the bass, before rooting into a steady blues shuffle, like a snake. On "Hooveling," he dodged and sidestepped and got aggressive, pushing through knotty crowds of notes -- a metaphor for negotiating sidewalk traffic in Manhattan. And here, Holland told another story. When he first moved to Manhattan, he ran into a character who explained that real New Yorkers walked in a certain manner known as "hooveling" -- dodging through crowds without ever touching other pedestrians. Later, Holland turned this myth into a tune.
What else? He played Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" and John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C.," which was composed for Paul Chambers. As Holland inspired his audience with these soulful tributes, he explained that Mingus and Chambers had been among his bass-playing inspirations. There's a sense of history in his music, of open-ended history. It's an inspiration, watching Holland as he goes about his hooveling -- finding open spaces to explore in a crowded field, where he has few peers.
Bassist, in residence at SFJazz Center
What/when: Duo with pianist Kenny Barron, Feb. 8; performance of Holland's quintet (sold out), Feb. 9; with Prism, Holland's new electric quartet, Feb. 10
Where: 201 Franklin St. (at Fell Street), San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$70, depending on event; 866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org