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Dave Holland: A Giant, and Still Growing

By Published: March 13, 2004

This large group has been a natural development for me, I think, in terms of stretching the boundaries of what I'm trying to do as an individual.

Dave Holland speaks right to the point. Assured. Precise. Confident. The British accent of the England-born musician is perhaps a bit worn off from being in the United States for so long, since 1968 when the 22-year old relatively unknown bassist was called across the ocean to join Miles Davis at a time when the Price of Darkness was about change the world yet again, this time with his mysterious, raucous and marvelous electronic explorations.

Holland's come a long way since then, playing with so many important and influential musicians, then rising himself as one of those whom others look to for example. Through Monk and Getz, Anthony Braxton and Chick Corea, Sam Rivers, John McLaughlin, Betty Carter, Joe Henderson, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Elvin Jones and on and on. While he still plays in different musical environments, he's come into his own in recent years with a superior band, one of the most exciting in jazz. As a player and bandleader, Holland walks were few others tread.

He's had a helluva year in 2002. His band, his Not For Nothin' CD, his own marvelous playing and his move to the forefront of jazz have all garnered him honors from magazines and jazz associations seemingly every time a poll is conducted. If he were an athlete, he'd be Jordan — scoring leader, All-Star, league MVP and World Champion all in one. And while often awards are extremely subjective, this time they got it right. There's not a better working band out there, no one who puts out such consistently outstanding recordings, and no one who plays better bass, If all that doesn't shouldn't bring him Musician of the Year, what should?

Hang on to your hats, though. There's more coming. A lot more. He isn't resting on his laurels, but rather looking ahead, grateful to be appreciated, but too level-headed to take a curtain call when there's so much more to be accomplished.

"The last few years has been a very nice development in terms of exposure the band's had and the music's had to the public, and an acknowledgement from both the critics and the public. That's been very satisfying," says Holland, "but you have to keep these things in perspective, of course, because they're very meaningful on one level. But on another level, there's a lot of great music out here and a lot of people that deserve credit for it. When you see a poll with the names in it, all of whom are great players, they're all great individuals. It's almost impossible to say this one is better than the other."

Be that as it may, the Dave Holland Quintet, together for five years now — Steve Nelson on vibes, Chris Potter on sax, Robin Eubanks on trombone and Billy Kilson on drums — is dazzling. At the Freihofer Jazz Festival in Saratoga Springs, NY, in late June the band tore it up — driving, exotic, exploratory, intense and together. Very, VERY together.

The previous CD, Prime Directive is as fine as the latest one, part of the process of building a personal dialog for the band, which only plays material written by those within its ranks. On the heels of all that comes the Dave Holland Big Band on a CD titled What Goes Around, due for release this month. The music is fabulous. It's not a swing band. It takes the quintet and its music at its core, keeps the spirit of the small band, and presents different colors and textures. It's dynamite.

But wait. There are quintet tours and a big band tours coming up. Holland is also going to release a live quintet album next year and has a second Big Band album in mind. In his spare time, a CD will come out next year with Holland outside the main band, playing with friends and colleagues John Scofield, Joe Lovano and Al Foster. (I don't think the band is going to be going out on tour, because we're all quite involved with our own individual projects," he says. "But it's nice from time to time to do something different. I find it refreshing. It gets you outside of your own universe for a minute and gives you a chance to have some diverse musical experiences. Those things are still important to me.")

Whew! Quite a trip for a largely self-taught bassist from a working class English family who wasn't listening to jazz growing up. That trip is far from over.

"It's the first time I've put together music for a big band. The idea started a couple of years ago when we got offered the invitational series in Montreal, to put on a series of concerts [the 200 Montreal Jazz Festival]," says Holland. "We decided to make one of the concerts a large group, which was something we wanted to do for a while."

To round out the big band, he chose players he felt could add something as soloists, as well as be good section players. But he didn't want a stock big band playing swing arrangements.

"I very much tried to build on the musical concepts we've developed over the years with the small group, and expand on those, and take advantage of the greater opportunities offered in orchestration and composition by the larger group," says Holland. "Although some of thematic material used on the big band album have been recorded in a small group context, it was in a much more abbreviated form. In the small group we are able to have a greater degree of flexibility in certain ways, therefore we don't need so much written material. But with a large group you have the opportunity to use all the different colors there that are available and expand the compositional settings for the soloist and things like that."

The bass master said his big band ideas are influenced by Ellington and Strayhorn, Mingus, Thad Jones and Kenny Wheeler, but when the material comes across it's not a clone, but very much derived from his working group.

"I wasn't trying to use the band to create consistently the sort of classic big band style, but rather break down the ensemble with smaller sections and smaller groupings of instruments to provide different colors behind the soloists and in the written transition sections," he says.

The big band isn't going to fade away with this CD release. "It's very difficult to look into the future and see how things are going to last. We're really just beginning the project. We received a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival last year and performed a suite, which was written for that commission in September. That's added to our book of music, and some other things I've written for the band which are not on the record," he says.

"We're beginning working with the group in the fall, touring for a couple of months. We've got some plans next year for concerts with the big band, so I'm expecting it to be a project, hopefully, that we can develop in the future.

"The main working group is still going to be the quintet. But this also offers me, as a musician, a new and exciting challenge to expand the music in certain ways and to put it into another setting. I find that very rewarding and it helps me grow as a musician. So this large group has been a natural development for me, I think, in terms of stretching the boundaries of what I'm trying to do as an individual."

The epicenter of the music, the quintet, is a marvel not just because of how good they are, but that they've been together five years, which is a long time in the music world. It's allowed the band to develop its own personal sound, though Holland thinks that sound was there right out of the gate.

"A lot of it had to do with the musicians having an individual sound on their instrument. Each one has a fairly unique approach to the instrument. On top of that, the combination of instruments in the band is one that you don't hear very often. The instrumentation of the band has its own sound. Then of course we use all original material in the group. That's another element which lends itself to creating a sound for this group. The music is crafted for the people that are playing it," he says.

Like other great bandleaders, having the same people also helps Holland as a composer. His skills are growing in that area as well, and there is plenty of opportunity for the other members to contribute. Not unlike his former boss, Miles.

"I always feel I like to know who I'm writing for so that the music has some sort of personal connection. It always helps me to have a sound in my head of what the band's like and who I'm writing for," says Holland. "I think that having that focus for your work is important to me as a composer as well as a player. Both those aspects are fulfilled more for me when there's some continuity going on. The compositions help me develop as a player. We write music which is presenting ideas and concepts which we're working on as instrumentalists, so the music we write helps us develop ideas we have as soloists and players and, conversely, the things we develop as players we're able to feed back into the compositions that we write."

His soloists are all strong, and relatively young; firebrands, allowed to create on their own and contribute to the group's movement, expression and direction. Again, reminiscent of the trumpet player who brought Holland across the pond over 30 years ago. A phone call, a raspy voice on the other end, and Holland's life was changed for good.

"It was surprising. I was playing in [famous London jazz club] Ronnie Scott's with a singer. We were in the support band. Bill Evans, the pianist, was there with his trio as the main act. Miles visited London and came into the club that night, in July of 1968. And at the end of the night I got a message that Miles wanted me to join his band, which was a complete surprise.

"It was unexpected. I wasn't in a musical situation which was particularly geared to show me in the contemporary style I was developing as a player. I was playing fairly standard music with a singer, a very good singer, and a very good trio. But I was really trying to play that music - and I'm convinced it's one of the reasons I was offered the job with Miles - is that he heard me trying to play musically for this situation, rather than to just go for myself. I've always tried to play what was the best for the music. And I think he probably heard that and liked what he heard."

Playing to the strength of bandmates wasn't uniquely Davis, says Holland, but "Miles certainly was a master of being able to give enough guidance and not too much. Give direction, but still allow the musicians the freedom to explore their own creative ideas. I think that way you get the most personal and most meaningful contribution coming from everybody. And I extend that also to the composing skills of the musicians too. When there are musicians in the band who are also fine composers, it's great to have the opportunity to play their music and their concept of what a compositional setting could be for the band. It gives us some other opportunities and other options, musically."

As a bassist, Holland said he was first influenced by the great Ray Brown and Leroy Vinegar, but "there are a lot of other bass players and non-bass players that have been important to me and influential."

Still, it took time to find them. In northern England where he grew up, he only heard what was on the radio, which was pop and the beginnings of rock and roll. "I used to listen to the radio a lot and pick out things I heard on that. I played the ukulele when I was 4 years old. I just learned a few chords on it. Then I used to sit at the piano and pick out ideas there," he said. "A lot of it was the self-discovery of music, as much as anything. I had a few people show me a little bit. My uncle showed me some chords on the ukulele, and I had a few piano lessons briefly. But my main development started when I met some other guitar players at a youth club I was going to when I was about 13."

He joined a band playing hits of the day, as a guitarist, and then "we decided the band didn't sound right without a bassist, so I volunteered to get a bass guitar. I started listening to bass guitar and bass players at that point."

Soon after, he was turned on to Brown and Vinegar and practiced with their records, hearing the sounds of jazz.

"I turned professional when I was 15. I started left school and started playing professionally on bass guitar then switched to acoustic bass when I was 17. I got offered a job with a dance band playing a summer season in the north of England. I practiced a lot. I'm not saying there wasn't a lot of time spent on the music. I'm just saying that the process wasn't formal. I had a lot of teachers, but they were mostly musicians that I knew, it wasn't formal teachers at a school. After I started playing acoustic bass I moved to London and started studying with a classical bass teacher privately, once a week. Then I applied to the school for a three-year course, full-time. I was there from 65 to 68 at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama."

He also learned at Ronnie Scott's. where he would encounter touring jazz musicians like Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, as well as playing with London's most innovative artists, including John McLaughlin, John Surman, Kenny Wheeler, Chris McGregor, Evan Parker. After the call from Miles, he participated in some of the seminal recordings of the era, like Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Live at the Fillmore.

Holland's career blossomed and he found work with a catalog of jazz greats, but it has really come into focus with this band of special musicians. While all the musicians are outstanding, young Kilson on drums has a special talent. He's an astounding drummer, polyrhythmic, fluid, funky, fast and exotic. He pushes the music special places, provides beats for the soloists and the musical concept, at once and separately. It seems like more than one drummer to hear him, but to watch his smooth, dance-like movements behind the trap set, it seems so easy. It appears as though Holland has found his Philly Joe or Tony Williams.

"He's definitely, of his generation, on of the great drummers and percussionists that we have at the moment," says Holland. "I certainly think he takes his place in the tradition of great drummers that have brought a unique approach to the music. He's an exceptional musician."

And so the band goes on. "I'm already thinking about the next CD and the next music I'm writing. I'm involved right now in writing some music for the band, and hopefully it will be moving forward," he says. "I'm very happy for the acknowledgement and it certainly an indication that people are taking notice. And of course it opens up yet more possibilities, work-wise, for the band, to take our music around to even more people."

"You're always thinking about the next step, once you've done something. You enjoy the fact that it works and it came together, but you kind of focus on what more can be done and what more can be learned from it. So I'm already thinking about the next CD and the next music I'm writing. I'm involved right now in writing some music for the band, and hopefully it will be moving forward."

So for fans of the band and the music, there's a lot to look forward to as these fine musical minds continue to grow together, directed by the stable veteran of the bass violin.

"We are booking, or projecting, about a year and a half ahead. That's necessary for a lot of reasons. We try to make it possible for the members of the group also to do some other things that they may want to do. So we try to plan out the work for the quintet over a fairly good length of time into the future. Through the end of next year we've got plans to be touring with the quintet. And from time to time some concerts with the big band too."

Life, as they say, is good. The music is great.

Visit Dave Holland on the web at www.daveholland.com .



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