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Dave Holland: A Giant, and Still Growing

By Published: March 13, 2004
"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.

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