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Dave Holland: Past-Present-Future Luster

By Published: September 18, 2006
AAJ: That’s definitely a wave that musicians today are starting to catch.

DH: Yeah. And increasing quicker than anyone expected, at least in a lot of areas of the industry. Increasingly, people are accessing their music and buying their music by downloading straight into the computer, into the iPods. It’s been a wonderful development, I think.

AAJ: How is the big band doing?

DH: The big band’s doing well. We did a lot of work following the release of the Overtime album. We have a concert in Texas in two weeks. We’ve been doing some concerts from time to time. We don’t have any extended touring time for the big band. We’re focusing now on the quintet because of the release of the album. We’re getting back to that. We put that on hold a little while the big band was so busy.

That, and there’s also a sextet that I started earlier this year with a three-horn front line and piano, bass and drums. We’re going to be doing a few gigs with that in February. There a few other things that I’m starting but the main focus over the next year will be largely with the quintet.

The big band is still going and we’ve still got the same personnel. It’s the same band we had with the exception of our drummer. Nate Smith’s now playing with the big band. It’s been more or less the same for about four or five years now.

AAJ: Is the sextet the same folks with horns added?

DH: Some additions. We have in the rhythm section Mulgrew Miller on piano and Eric Harland on drums. The front line is Alex Sipiagin, Antonio Hart and Robin Eubanks, trumpet, saxophone and trombone.

AAJ: You’re going to be 60 this year, which isn’t that old. But you’ve been in the business a long time. When you look back, you must feel like you accomplished certain goals. I know you’re not done and there’s a lot ahead of you. But you must have some satisfaction looking back at all the great musicians you’ve played with years ago, from Miles to Circle to everything else. You seem to have done things right.

DH: Yeah, it’s been a winding road. We just kind of followed the call. Whatever seemed to be the important thing that was in front of me at the time, out of the choices that I had, I tried to make the right one for what I was trying to do at the time, musically, and for what I felt was relevant. Yes, I do feel good about the choices that I’ve made and I feel very fortunate that those opportunities were given to me. Overall, it’s been a very satisfying life so far. Stimulating, interesting. I’ve had a wonderful series of associations with musicians I love and respect. It’s been very positive.

It hasn’t been easy all the time. There have been a lot of struggles along the way, but that’s generally the case when you make a commitment to something. Sometimes there are some prices to be paid, which in a way tests your resolve and only makes you stronger, I think. Sometimes those challenges are very good for you. They come along and they say, ‘How much do you really want to do this?’ And you have to answer that question.

I have to say at least a word about my family, the kind of support and encouragement and focus and center that they’ve provided for me has been essential, really. From the beginning, my wife Claire used to carry the hat around when I was playing in pubs in England. She’s still on the tour bus with us these days, now that the kids are no longer living in the house.

AAJ: I know there have been many in your career, but what are some of the musical associations that really jump out, as you look back.

DH: Well, going chronologically, in the early days there were a lot of really good people that I played with in England that kind of put up with my greenness and inexperience. They heard something and they gave me an opportunity. A couple of the players that played with a contemporary edge to music that were important to me were John Surman, the baritone player, who was a very dear friend of mine during that period in England and is one of the people that I was around that was writing music and trying to be creative and be somebody that took responsibility for creating opportunities for the musicians he wanted to play with.

Chris McGregor was another one, a South African pianist who came with his band, which was a racially mixed band. They left South Africa during the apartheid period in the mid-‘60s and ended up living in London. It was a wonderfully energetic band that mixed Cecil Taylor with Ornette Coleman with highlife music with Ellington. It was a great experience to be around music played with such energy and enthusiasm. Chris is also a fine composer.

I have to say Jack DeJohnette has been a good friend and somebody that has been a champion for me in terms of giving some very good recommendations to people and including me in on things when perhaps I was considered a little bit of a fringe musician and more than somebody involved in the mainstream. Jack I met in England before I came to New York.

Of course Miles was obviously a wonderful opportunity and a great man who, thankfully, heard something in my playing that he thought was worth exploring and having in his group. When I got to New York he was so gracious and encouraging and welcoming, inviting me to his house many times. So that was great.

Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. Both of those musicians set great examples for me, in different ways, often. Two people that were equally committed to the thing that they wanted to do.

Betty Carter was incredibly important to me. She gave me some great advice when I was starting to think about starting a band and really gave me some good advice about what it meant to do that; what it meant to be a bandleader. I had a chance to work with her for about a year in the mid-‘70s. After that, she remained a really good friend. Often I would see her and we’d sit and talk about things. She was a nurturer, Betty. She nurtured a lot of people through her band and gave them opportunities. I loved her very much and she was very important to me.

After that, the musicians I’ve been working with. I’m very close to Robin. He’s been a good friend. There have been a lot of musicians I’ve been associated with in the last 25 years since I started my own group that have really given me the commitment and openness and put up with the hardships of life on the road when you’re doing everything on a tight budget and just trying to get things going.

I’ve left a lot of people out.

Herbie Hancock was a really important figure to me through the ‘90s and up to the present. I started working with him in the ‘90s on a fairly frequent basis. His enthusiasm and positivity and joy of making music helped me lighten up a little bit. I took music very seriously, and still do. But I took myself too seriously. Herbie, when he gets on stage, he wants to play serious music, but he wants to have fun doing it. Being around him really put me back in touch with that thing. There needs to be that part of the experience as well. It’s not only about being concentrated and focused and being serious about your pursuit of the creative ideas you’ve got. It’s also about having fun along the way and putting some joy into it. That was a real gift that he gave to me.

Wayne Shorter has been an inspiration, of course, for his work as a musician. It goes without saying he’s one of the great compositional voices that we’ve had in my lifetime. He’s also a unique and special individual. I don’t see him often enough, but over the years I’ve seen him a number of times; even more frequently recently. He’s always got something interesting to say to you or something that makes you think about it. Stimulating. He refuses to go for the mundane and the calculated in the formula. He always wants to not only surprise his audience, but surprise himself too.

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