Fusion is not a dirty word

  • Article by: BRITT ROBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 20, 2013 - 3:25 PM

So say jazz greats Dave Holland and Kevin Eubanks, whose reunion is reigniting the spark of jazz-rock.

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Prism, from left : Twin Cities native Craig Taborn, Dave Holland, Kevin Eubanks and Eric Harland.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, bassist Dave Holland released the record “Extensions,” a glorious mix of power and complexity, featuring guitarist Kevin Eubanks, that was voted Album of the Year in the jazz magazine Downbeat.

In the decades since, Holland enhanced his reputation as one of the premier bandleaders in jazz, while Eubanks became a familiar presence to millions of Americans as a member, then leader, of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” band.

Their chemistry made it inevitable that the two would work together again after Eubanks was freed from the constraints of his TV gig in 2010. That has happened with the formation of Prism, an all-star quartet appearing next weekend at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.

Released this summer, the group’s self-titled debut album rocks even harder than 1989’s “Extensions,” while retaining its beguiling sophistication. The disc also boasts perhaps the finest, most incendiary guitar work of Eubanks’ career.

The Holland-led group’s other members are first-call musicians in their own right. Pianist and electric keyboardist Craig Taborn, a Golden Valley native, was recently feted in a career retrospective at Walker Art Center. Drummer Eric Harland frequently comes to town as the timekeeper for Charles Lloyd’s ensemble.

But Holland acknowledged in a recent phone interview that “Kevin and I performing together again was the starting point for Prism.

“We have a strong musical relationship and you look for those musicians who can put you in a different frame of mind. Part of it is the sonic aspect of the guitar and bass being somewhat in the same family, just an octave apart. And on a more personal level, we both prefer not to force the music, just let it evolve.

“We both were influenced by Sam Rivers, whose concept of open improvisation allows us to release a lot of creative energy. And we both came up in the ’60s with rock ’n’ roll, with groups like Cream and Jimi Hendrix as contemporary music.”

Prism reflects (and refracts) all of those kindred spirits. The music is patient yet bold and improvisational, harkening back to the golden age of fusion jazz-rock from the late 1960s and ’70s, but with the unpredictable verve of Rivers. It is, in essence, tailor-made for Eubanks.

“I grew up when fusion wasn’t a four-letter word, and it was wonderful,” Eubanks said with a laugh, talking by phone on his way to a Prism rehearsal last week. “As far as my connection with Dave, it doesn’t feel like all that time has passed [between projects]. It is musical and emotional, not chronological, and it doesn’t stop. You know, the sun is always shining, you just rotate into it again. Our relationship feels like that.”

Everyone chipped in

Holland has become more intrepid in his choice of new projects since launching his own record label, Dare2, in 2005.

He said he was particularly excited by the prospect of all four members contributing songs to Prism’s menu of all-original material. Each is the author of at least two tunes on the new record, resulting in an invigorating variety.

Eubanks penned a funky, spiraling number entitled “The Watcher,” and a midtempo ballad, “The Color of Iris,” inspired by the fact that “the colors of a prism or a rainbow can be contained in your eye, which gives off a luminous energy.”

A highlight of the disc is the Holland composition “Empty Chair,” a slow but steadily burgeoning blues with an unmistakable Hendrix influence.

“That wasn’t totally on purpose,” Holland claims. “But I had been listening to a lot of Hendrix, getting in mind for a group with a guitar. And I wanted to write a blues for my guitar friend to lay into.”

“I love Jimi and I felt that connection right away,” Eubanks confirmed. “There is a powerful energy in that song, and to me, Hendrix would tear that song up.”

Eubanks does, too.

“I love this band,” he enthused. “I love playing with Eric and Craig as well as Dave. It is so much fun that I feel like a kid, waiting to see what happens next.”

Without prompting, Holland volunteered that he “is having a ball,” and has already scheduled Prism for a summer tour in 2014.

“I can’t wait to get back on the road for a few weeks, because not only is it a great band, it is great people. When you spend so much time together, it is nice to have such intelligent conversations.”

Both on and off the stage.

Britt Robson is a Minneapolis writer who covers music and pro basketball.

  • DAVE HOLLAND AND PRISM

    When: 7 & 9 p.m. Sat.-next Sun.

    Where: Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Mpls. 612-332-1010 or www.dakotacooks.com.

    Tickets: $30-$40.

    Web: http://daveholland.com.

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