Oct. 12 2016 10:53 AM

All-star Aziza quartet brings rich jazz tapestry to Wharton Center

Jazz supergroup Aziza (left to right: drummer Eric Harland, bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter and guitarist Lionel Loueke) comes to the Wharton Center stage next week.
Courtesy Photo

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect time. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.

When rays of recombination zap the venerable genes of jazz tradition, fresh mutations vibrate into being.

Aziza, the newly minted jazz supergroup coming to the Wharton Center Oct. 20, throws veteran bassist Dave Holland in with three of the most creative musicians in the world: guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Eric Harland.

The resulting sounds are lush and mesmerizing, often taking unexpected turns. Potter’s full-throated horn snakes through a dense landscape of plucks from Holland and Loueke, like an asphalt anaconda in a jungle crawling with life. Loueke’s restless, fertile guitar bursts into the light then slips back into the shadows, searching for new side tracks, setting much of the tone for Aziza’s music.

“The wedding of the African guitar style with the American tradition has produced some amazing results in his playing,” Holland said of Loueke.

When Potter isn’t playing, Holland and Loueke get into funky and profound tenstringed conversations that have listeners leaning forward to catch every gesture.

Holland, who cut his jazz teeth in the explosive 1960s with the likes of Miles Davis and became one of the genre’s most sought-after bassists and bandleaders, has never stopped looking for new directions in music. Potter has been a fan of Holland nearly all of his life.

“How does he keep his enthusiasm and his focus up?” Potter marveled. “Now he’s somewhere close to 70, right? I should know but I’m not sure.”

(Holland just turned 70 Oct. 1.)

“I mean, his spirit is easily as strong as the day I met him,” Potter continued. “He’s going the full distance. He’s in it.”

Potter pitched the idea of forming a group to Holland in late 2014, with the idea of touring in 2015. When they talked about possible bandmates, Loueke and Harland topped both their lists.

“We’ve all played together, but not at the same time,” Holland said.

Holland, Potter and Loueke recorded and toured with Herbie Hancock and backed the keyboardist on his all-star tribute to Joni Mitchell, “River: The Joni Letters.” Playing with Hancock, Potter said, was school unto itself.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I don’t think anyone understands how that works — how he sits down, plays the piano and it’s that fresh every time.”

In his own quiet way, Holland has set a mold for generations of jazz musicians, including Potter.

“He’s been an inspiration to me and to many people for a long time now,” Potter said. “For one thing, just the way he plays the bass. It’s so supportive and so solid and yet so giving. It makes you feel like you can do anything on top of it.”

After a flurry of emails, the quartet almost gave up on finding a name for the group. Posters for the first tour, in summer 2015, only listed their names. Then Loueke showed up with a composition called “Aziza.”

In West African folklore, the Aziza are supernatural beings, said to live in anthills or trees, endowed with valuable practical knowledge and spiritual wisdom. The group approved the palindromic name unanimously.

Not that Holland sees himself as a spiritual guide for anybody. The very idea made him laugh.

“I wouldn’t be that presumptuous,” he said. “I’m still trying to find my own way.”

On the other hand, jazz itself has long been a spiritual guide for him.

“It represents the highest elements of what it is to be a human being in a group,” he said. “I feel like music is such a great representation of idealizing what society could be in terms of how we relate to each other. It certainly changed my life.”

Born in Wolverhampton, England, Holland moved to London in 1964, where he played with touring American stars like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Joe Henderson. When he wasn’t playing, he soaked up the artistry of touring artists like drummer Max Roach and John Coltrane’s surging, loquacious bassist, Jimmy Garrison, who came to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club with saxophonist Archie Shepp.

“He opened every night with a 15- or 20-minute bass solo and I got to hear that every night for three weeks,” Holland said. “I was only 20 years old. It was a very formative experience for me.”

Miles Davis heard Holland at Ronnie Scott’s in 1968 and asked Holland to join his band. He stayed with Davis two years, playing both upright and electric bass on the seminal albums “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew.”

“He pretty much gave you free reign to explore your own music,” Holland said. “He’d create settings for you to work in, but he wasn’t a dictator at all.”

In a series of awardwinning small and large ensembles, Holland has followed Davis’ approach to leading bands.

“Find the right players, so you don’t have to do a lot of explaining about the music,” Holland said. “I’m looking for players that are going to go beyond what I’m expecting musically.”

Cutting contests have no place in Holland’s collectives, up to and including Aziza.

“We think of it as a tapestry of our four voices,” Potter said. “We’re all leading our own bands and kind of thinking like bandleaders, but we all want the music to work as a whole. If it means jumping ahead, somebody jumps ahead. If it means laying back, somebody lays back.”

The “tapestry” concept has served Holland well, beginning with his first record as a leader, 1972’s “Conference of the Birds.” The album was the first of many high-level collaborations of equals in which even the strongest personalities, like avant-garde legends Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton, merge into a fleeting, exquisite vision.

“It was a matter of creating some musical settings for that to happen — just enough to give it some direction, and not too much so that it stifles the creative process,” Holland said. “Well, this is another Miles Davis lesson, isn’t it?”

Another lesson from Davis is not to beat a dead horse. For now, Aziza is still fresh, with its first CD due this month, and in the bloom of discovery.

“I feel like I can be completely myself in the situation,” Potter said. “That’s a big thing. It doesn’t feel like there’s a barrier. I just go up there and explore what I feel like exploring. Somehow that’s how you end up reaching the heights.”

Holland has a lot of balls in the air in the coming months. He plans to resume a masterful, intimate series of duet gigs with piano legend Kenny Barron, go to India in February with percussionist Zakir Hussain and a multi-national band, Crosscurrents, and start a new trio with trombonist Robin Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire.

The unique pleasures of Aziza remain high in the mix, however, despite the crowded schedules of all four musicians.

“We’ll keep going until we don’t,” Holland said. “It could well be a band that has some continuity to it. I think we’re all enjoying it now. I can’t say what’s going to happen, because one never knows.”


7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20
Tickets start at $20.50/$18 students
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com