In the liner notes of his fourth Milestone release, Ron Holloway writes that the goal of Groove Update was to achieve "unity through diversity, with a focus on grooves, moods, and out-and-out swinging.” While the Washington, D.C.- based tenor saxophonist oftentimes gets pegged into the hard bop class, he insists that style represents only a part of his musicianship. "I could play it safe and just make an album that goes in one direction,” he says. "But I was exposed to so many different styles of music when I was growing up that I have to respect how those various elements have influenced me. So, to reflect who I am, one of my top priorities with this recording was to go for a varied presentation.”
Indeed, Holloway covers a lot of ground on Groove Update. With the support of a variety of top-notch acoustic and electric musicians, he takes on the role of Mr. Hard Bop, dips into the funk zone, swings with gusto, cooks with R&B fervor, and ends on a cool note with a quiet ballad. Also thrown into the rich mix are two poignant Gil Scott-Heron numbers, "Three Miles Down” and "We Almost Lost Detroit,” which feature the poet-singer. Taken all together, Holloway’s set list keeps the listener guessing as to what’s coming around the next bend. "That’s the only way to make a record these days,” he says. "Given the length of CDs, I find that creating varied grooves and different feels makes the listening experience more interesting. The CD is the perfect format for me because I like surprises and I thrive on diversity. I always have.”
Born August 24, 1953 in Washington, D.C., Holloway grew up listening to his father’s collection of 78s and LPs. Because his dad gravitated toward saxophone players, Holloway heard all the great tenors, including Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. "My parents were diligent listeners,” he says. "I can remember my father going to the record store each week and buying a new Blue Note or Prestige release. So when I first began to play the tenor saxophone in 1966, I felt I had a head start.”
Even though jazz was the sound he heard when he was home, Holloway also had his ears tuned to the radio where he was feasting on the pop sounds of the day, including tunes by James Brown, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, the Beatles, and Stevie Wonder. "Those were artists who had important things to say, but didn’t fit under the jazz umbrella,” Holloway says. "I read an interview with McCoy Tyner in Down Beat recently about how he played in R&B bands when he was coming up and how he never lost that elementary blues feeling in his playing. That’s also been my experience.”
It’s no surprise then that in addition to playing his tenor saxophone in his high school orchestra, Holloway was gigging in local R&B, rock, and funk bands. This led to playing with Root Boy Slim (aka Foster McKenzie III) in his Sex Change Band, which scored a couple of Seventies cult hits, "Boogie ’Til You Puke” and "You Broke My Mood Ring.” Later Holloway forged a longstanding professional relationship with Scott-Heron, with whom he’s recorded and toured since 1982.
Back on the jazz side of the tracks, Holloway met and sat in with several musicians, including Sonny Rollins and Freddie Hubbard. He also met Dizzy Gillespie in 1977 and performed in his band whenever he came to town. He became a permanent member of Diz’s quintet beginning in 1989 and continuing until the trumpeter’s death in 1993. His fiery soloing on Gillespie’s Symphony Sessions was singled out by Down Beat as "the hottest items of the album,” while another reviewer was also impressed, writing that Holloway "[preached] with the authority of a sanctified minister in the church of John Coltrane and Stanley Turrentine.” Holloway made his recording debut in 1994 with the Milestone disc Slanted, which was followed by Struttin’ (1995) and Scorcher (1996).
On Groove Update, Holloway opens with a doubleheader of tunes from Thelonious Monk’s playlist: a rhythmically charged take on the master’s "Epistrophy” followed by a sweetly lyrical, Dixieland-tinged version of one of the pianist’s favorite cover tunes, "Lulu’s Back in Town.” Holloway readily acknowledges Monk as one of his heroes. "Talk about individuality. There’s always been something that sets Monk apart. Over time that’s been driven home even more so. There are elements in his music that prevent it from ever sounding dated.” Holloway also pays homage to Stephane Grappelli by covering "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” with guest vocalist Lizabeth Flood and violinist Denise Carlson. "I was playing an engagement in the D.C. area with a friend who trusts me to latch onto tunes that I’m not familiar with,” Holloway says. "One night he pulled out this number. As the tune was developing onstage, I was really drawn to it. At the time I was listening to a lot of Grappelli’s recordings. When I went looking for another one of his albums, I realized he recorded this song. I loved his version, which inspired me to record it.”
In addition, Holloway romps through the hard-boppin’ "Gingerbread Boy” (the Jimmy Heath number that came to his attention via Miles Davis’s Miles Smiles album) and delivers the melodic beauty "East of the Sun (West of the Moon)” with straightahead swing. Holloway also takes funky rides through Herbie Hancock’s "Chameleon” and Horace Silver’s "Psychedelic Sally.”
While Holloway employs a fine support team, his singular, multi-voiced tenor saxophone playing commands center stage. What’s particularly impressive and distinctive is his performance in the upper register, where he soars with the lyricism of a soprano saxophone and the rhythmic staccato of a trumpet. "It’s taken me a long time to perfect playing in that high range, but that’s what sets my tenor sax playing apart,” says Holloway, who was first inspired to experiment with extending his instrument’s sonic potential after hearing Coltrane’s Africa/Brass album when he was young. "I was committed to stretching the limits, to not only hit those high notes in tune but also to play full melodies. So today I can play in that register with almost the same degree of dexterity as the normal tenor sax range.”
Whether he’s exploring a new tenor sax soundscape or cooking up a triumphant assortment of tunes like those on Groove Update, Holloway takes great pleasure in pushing aside boundaries. "If you don’t want to stagnate, you have to keep an open mind,” he explains. "As sure as life itself, you have to stay open to trying things in new ways.”