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Dave Holland: Past-Present-Future Luster

By Published: September 18, 2006

I’ve always thought creativity is a state of mind. It’s not so much about what you do, but how you do it.

Dave HollandSo far this century, Dave Holland has hit his stride and is enjoying success like few others have matched during the same period of time. He's got the chance to enjoy it now. Make no mistake; it is the fruits of hard labor that he is tasting. And make no mistake that the hard work and the successes bring with it a dose of well-earned satisfaction as Holland eyes his 60th birthday this fall.

Holland is looking forward to many more years of making music and the challenges that new avenues of creation and opportunities for improvisation present. The latest evidence of that is his new recording, Critcial Mass (Dare2, 2006), another gem from the quintet Holland has held together since 1998 with only one personnel change (drummer Nate Smith replaced Billy Kilson a couple years ago; this is Smith's first CD appearance with the band). The release is on his own Dare2 Records, his second recording on the label that followed a long, successful run with ECM Records.

It’s typical that the band had been working over some of the Critical Mass material for a couple years, some for a matter of months, before they stepped into the studio. That’s Holland’s M.O. And the group is already working on music that will likely appear on its next recording—probably late 2007 or early 2008, if past history holds up. People seeing the band on tour over the coming months will hear a bit of both.

The band—Chris Potter on sax, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on vibes, Smith on drums—brings its identifiable sound to the new CD, but continues to explore different musical ideas. And each band member continues to contribute compositions, which is something their leader encourages.

“ I’m fortunate enough to have musicians who are not only fine individual players and great ensemble players, but they also are composers,” says Holland. “So it just adds another dimension to the contribution that everybody can make to the development of the music and the perspective that we can get from each person’s take on what the band can do.”

From the mainstream mood of the opener “Eyes Have It,” the music has various rhythmic influences and takes different directions. Each of the individuals are up to their usual fine form, Eubanks with the glistening tone and sweet slide and glide, Potter with his serpentine statements that dance and twist, Nelson with his neatly swinging serenity, and polyrhythmic propulsion from Smith. The conversations take place among the group in unison, interweaving at times, and in solo form. Among the gems are “Easy Did It” which has a funky allure and dynamite solos; the seductive “Secret Garden,” “The Leak,” and the part delicate/part raucous “Amator Silenti.” But take your choice. The album is outstanding as a whole.

“It doesn’t sound like a disparity of different styles of writing and things, even though there are a lot of different approaches. There is a unified aspect to it and I think that comes, certainly, from the fact we work together,” the leader says.

The CD is part of a running recorded chronicle of this amazing musician’s career, from his days in his native England where he pretty much taught himself to play the bass, to his encounter’s with that country’s avant-garde musicians, to his tenure with Miles Davis that produced some astounding music like Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1979), In a Silent Way (Columbia/Legacy, 1969), Black Beauty (Columbia/Legacy, 1970) and more. But beyond that to years of creation with woodwind multi-instrumentalists Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton and Joe Lovano, guitarist John Abercrombie, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Roy Haynes, saxophonist Joe Henderson, singer Betty Carter, pianists Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, and on, and on... and on.

His own band has achieved rare critical and popular acclaim, with albums like Prime Directive (ECM, 1999), Not For Nothin’ (ECM, 20001) and Extended Play: Live at Birdland (ECM, 2003). Then there’s the big band that started a few years back and recorded What Goes Around (ECM, 2002) that won a Grammy. That band is still very much alive and well. Add those recordings, each outstanding, to the total of Holland’s distinguished career

Holland is a serious musician who has pretty much done it all with a who’s who of superb musicians, both renowned and lesser known, but stellar, players. He’s aware of his good fortune. But that work has been the product of musicians recognizing that he is both a virtuoso and a complete team player, capable of fitting into all kinds of musical situations, be they mainstream, ethnic, off-beat, rockish, and beyond. It is also the product of good decisions the level-headed Holland has made along the way.

He’s also quick to point to the support of his family as an important aid that allows Holland to follow his muse, and at the same time navigate the murky, often unforgiving waters of the music industry that have sent many a musician crashing into the rocky shore.

At a point in his life when the sailing is mostly smooth, the soon-to-be-60 Holland took time in August to talk about his band, his new record label and the opportunities it presents in a rapidly changing recording industry, his future projects—including a sextet that will have a three-person horn section and the wonderful Mulgrew Miller on piano—and his past accomplishments and influences. The discussion follows here.

It’s worthy of note that Holland, who’s superb musicianship has broadened in recent years, making itself even more evident with his excellent writing and arranging, both for the quartet and big band, never mentions the instrument he plays.

For the record, he plays the double-bass.

Plays the hell right out of it.

All About Jazz: The new music. It’s the first quintet disk in a little while.

Dave Holland (DH): We usually put an album out about every 18 months. The last one was Overtime (Dare2, 2005), the big band, but it’s the first studio date we’ve done with the quintet in about two years. We had a live recording come out previous to the last big band one (Extended Play: Live at Birdland) previous to the last big band one.

AAJ: Billy Kilson (drummer) has been on the other quintet CDs. This is the first for Nate Smith.

DH: Yeah. They were all things that were recorded previous to the Nate joining the band about two years ago.

AAJ: I assume these tunes (on Critical Mass) were battle tested over the last couple years on the road.

DH: Some of it was more recent. A couple of the tunes, at least, were done in the last four months or so before the recording. But all of the songs we have a chance to play. That’s, as you know, something I like to do and something I’ve done with every record. We never usually go in the studio without at least having a chance to play the music for at least some months, but more often for a year or so. We’ve got new music now that we’re starting to play, which will presumably find its way to the next album.

AAJ: Having a working band—and your band has changed very little over the years other than the drummer—has got to be a plus when you’re working on your music. And I know you allow [band mates] to bring in music as well.

DH: Yeah. It’s really a group effort. I’ve always seen it as a group situation. I take responsibility for certain things, but on stage we’re all up there making music together. I’m fortunate enough to have musicians who are not only fine individual players and great ensemble players, but they also are composers. So it just adds another dimension to the contribution that everybody can make to the development of the music and the perspective that we can get from each person’s take on what the band can do.

The interesting thing for me is that it always works out somehow. The music, when it’s all put together on the album, all seems to fit together as a whole. It doesn’t sound like a disparity of different styles of writing and things, even though there are a lot of different approaches. There is a unified aspect to it and I think that comes, certainly, from the fact we work together. We’re all in tune with the potential of what the band is doing at certain times, and so on.

AAJ: That’s one of the great benefits of the band. You guys all have open minds as well. It seems like nobody says, “I don’t want to do this.”

DH: Right. I’ve always thought creativity is a state of mind. It’s not so much about what you do, but how you do it. We all enjoy a lot of different approaches to the music and different ways of thinking about it. That’s something I’ve certainly enjoyed in my career, having had a chance to work with different people and look at the music from different perspectives.

At this point in my life, I’m really interested in bringing together all the different experiences and, of course, having new ones too. And just keep growing; keep the music moving along, in a step-by-step manner. That’s the way I see it. It’s really about going from gig to gig and developing it from day to day. That’s one of the benefits of stable personnel. You have some continuity with that.

AAJ: Holding this band together so long, these days, is a pretty long time.

DH: I think in any time. I think it’s the longest I’ve worked—perhaps Sam Rivers was about the same amount of time. I worked with Sam for about nine years. But it’s the right thing. I’ll take some credit for it, but it’s also to the credit of the musicians who made the commitment to do it and enjoy doing it and feel that what we’re doing together is something that is a special moment for all of us in our lives. We found a group of people who we can really explore a lot of our creative ideas with—in a generous way and a sharing way and a supporting way—where everybody is supportive of each other and what they’re trying to do. There’s not a competitive vibe, which you sometimes find and which usually ends up breaking a band up.

AAJ: Your band has also been chronicled with a steady string of recordings. That used to happen, but it seems like it doesn’t anymore.

DH: I have to say it’s always been a goal and a dream of mine to have that happen. I grew up at a time when it was about bands, like the Ellington band, which in some cases the people would play together for 40 or 50 years. And any other band that I admired, like Miles’ groups and Coltrane and Art Blakey. A lot of the great bands were groups that at least stayed together for a period of time so that they could develop the music and explore the potential there.

You followed those things. You waited for the next album. You wanted to see what the next episode was going to be. It was like reading a book and you wanted to get to the next chapter. OK, where’s it going now?

AAJ: I once had a long talk with T.S. Monk about it and he was saying how in this day and age the record companies will grab a young player, who may have a lot a talent, but they almost push him out too fast, and then his record sales fall. Then he carries this label around as a sales flop, and it gives him a stigma for a while. Whereas in the old days, with Monk and Miles and others, record people may not have been the greatest when it came to paying them what they deserved, but they knew it was important to go out and record them every so often and chronicle their growth.

DH: I have to say there’s some responsibility on the part of the musicians there. We can blame the record companies for that, but there are also some choices that the musicians make. If you’re a young musician of 21 and still in the formative period, and you decide to go for the opportunity of quick success—which doesn’t often come, of course—with an offer that sort of dazzles you. Then you get diverted from the path of apprenticeship, which is important in the music; working with musicians, developing your craft, developing your understanding of how it functions, how the music is put together, what the process is. All those things are things that often take time.

I know, just from observing musicians, that there are some that make the choice. They want to take their time. They’re not in a hurry to become a bandleader. They’re prepared to wait until they’re maybe 30 or so, 35, before they step out and do their own thing. I think in the end, that patience is required. That’s something that is really quite important.

There are the exceptions of people who are ready to be bandleaders. But Trane didn’t really didn’t start having his own working band until he was in his 30s. There are many examples like that. He was working with Monk and Miles and he took those gigs because he understood that he could really work on his music in the context of a very creative situation, with musicians who were going to help him develop and mature as a musician himself.

AAJ: Is there anything on Critical Mass from your perspective that you might say, “That’s really different. We haven’t quite done that before.”

DH: I think there a lot of things in there. I don’t want to sound like I’m overly satisfied with it. The music is always in the process of becoming, so we’re now still thinking about how to build on those songs and develop them further, and then new pieces are being introduced.

I don’t want to get too technical, but there’s some structural things that are happening in the compositions, in the forms, that I think are in some ways extensions or developments further from things we already started in motion on other pieces and other records. There are also some things that are quite new. The Steve Nelson composition, “Amator Silenti,” is a unique episodic piece which goes to a number of different stages and moods and things. It’s kind of a new setting for the band. The Robin Eubanks piece (“Full Circle”) I think has a lot of new things in it. A couple of my tunes are developing some of the rhythmic forms that I’ve been working on in new areas. There’s certainly some movement there.

I’m not saying it’s a huge departure. It’s not like we suddenly developed a new language or anything. But I think there’s definitely some developmental process still evident in a lot of the pieces.

Dave HollandAAJ: Why the switch away from ECM?

DH: Ownership and personal control of the product of our work. The standard situation with a record company is that you make the record. The cost of making the record is taken out of your royalties. But the recording itself belongs to the record company when you, in fact, have paid for the production. I was happy with the ECM relationship for many years. But for a long time I’ve had in my mind that I wanted to get more ownership of the master tapes of the music.

I made a proposal to ECM a few years ago for me to do that—for me to produce the records and develop them, but then for them to lease them from me. We did, in fact, lease two records to another record company at that point. It was the second solo album I did on the bass, which was One’s All (Intuition, 1993). We leased that to Intuition Records, which was just recently was returned to me and it’s going to be on Dare2 Records in the future.

There was another record called The World Trio (Intuition, 1995), which was with [guitarist] Kevin Eubanks and [percussionist] Mino Cinelu. That was also on Intuition Records, which is now called Schott Music. At that point I was already wanting to move in that direction, but ECM wasn’t really prepared to do that, so I had to accept it. I was happy with the other aspects of the relationship with ECM and continued recording for them for some time, up until the release of Overtime.

It was at that point that I really saw that the time was right for me to make that move. There were some opportunities that had been created by the increased success that the music was having and the increased support we were getting from the public. I had gotten the next album lined up, the second big band album, Overtime, which is a follow up to what had been a very successful CD winning a Grammy (What Goes Around, Best Large Jazz Ensemble, 2003) and doing well in the sales area. It seemed to be a very opportune moment for me to take this second big band CD. Where there was a lot of expectation and interest in it, and use that as a starting point for the record company.

We immediately got a wonderful offer from Universal Jazz France, whose president is Daniel Richard. He immediately took a meeting with us and expressed his interest in setting up a distribution and licensing arrangement and promotion for the records. At the same time we could maintain the identity of our own record label and ownership and so on. So that was the starting point. What is going to follow on from that for me now, which ties in with the current state of affairs in the record business, is the whole idea of Internet distribution, downloading music.

We’ve been recording concerts live for the last two or three years. We carry our own 24-track recording system to a lot of our gigs. We’ve got an archive of things building up. The beauty of it is there’s more choice now for the consumer and the musician. We’re not tied into putting out a whole album. I can release a track from a concert we did six months ago and I can release some tracks from a duet concert I did with Steve Nelson or Jim Hall. These things can be freed up from the whole constriction of CDs and putting it a store. You can make it available to the public and then they have the choice of getting one track of something.

This is the other side of it. I wanted to set up a framework, a record company that would be a vehicle through which that could happen.

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.

Dave HollandAAJ: I’m sure there’s lots of challenges ahead that you’re looking forward to taking on.

DH: Absolutely. The challenge as you get older, I think, is to keep that element of curiosity and growth in your music and openness to new things. Each stage of your life has different elements to it, different qualities to it. You have to discover what each stage is about.

The early stages are just about discovering everything. Then there’s a consolidation period of bringing that all together into some kind of unified form. And then, in the later period of your life, it’s about finding ways to use those things you’ve consolidated and to build on them. To me that’s the challenge now is to build on it.

The most recent evidence of my response to the challenge has been the big band. It’s something I’ve always aspired to, is to write for a big band. Until we put this group together, I never really took the bull by the horns, so to speak. This has really given me a chance to move into a new kind of setting with the music and consider the challenges of what that presents to me as a writer and so on. At this point, it’s about how to build on these things and to find new ways to extend the ideas you’ve found to be the ones that are interesting to you.

Selected Discography

Dave Holland Quintet, Critical Mass (Dare2, 2006)

Dave Holland Big Band, Overtime (Dare2, 2005)

Kenny Wheeler, What Now? (CamJazz, 2005)

Geri Allen, The Life of a Song (Telarc, 2004)

Dave Holland Quintet, Extended Play: Live at Birdland (ECM, 2003)>

Roy Haynes, Love Letters (Columbia, 2003)

Dave Holland Big Band, What Goes Around (ECM, 2002)

Dave Holland Quintet, Not for Nothin' (ECM, 2001)

Bill Frisell, With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (Nonesuch, 2001)

Dave Holland Quintet, Prime Directive (ECM, 1999)

Cassandra Wilson, Traveling Miles (Blue Note, 1999)

Dave Holland Quintet, Points of View (ECM, 1998)

Joe Lovano, Trio Fascination Edition One (Blue Note, 1998)

Chris Potter, Unspoken (Concord, 1997)

Dave Holland Quartet, Dream of the Elders (ECM, 1996)

Michael Brecker, Tales from the Hudson (Impulse!, 1996)

Kenny Wheeler, Angel Song (ECM, 1996)

Mino Cinelu/Kevin Eubanks/Dave Holland, The World Trio (Intuition, 1995)

Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1995)

Gateway, Homecoming (ECM, 1995)

Dave Holland, Ones All (Intuition, 1993)

Kevin Eubanks, Spiritalk (Blue Note, 1993)

Joe Henderson, So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles) (Verve, 1992)

Don Grolnick, Nighttown (Blue Note, 1992)

Dave Holland Quartet, Extensions (ECM, 1990)

Kenny Wheeler, Music for Large and Small Ensembles (ECM, 1990)

Pat Metheny/Dave Holland/Roy Haynes, Question and Answer (Geffen, 1989)

Dave Holland Trio, Triplicate (ECM, 1988)

Dave Holland Quintet, The Razor's Edge (ECM, 1987)

Kenny Barron, Scratch (Enja, 1986)

Dave Holland Quintet, Seeds of Time (ECM, 1985)

Dave Holland Quintet, Jumpin' In (ECM, 1984)

Dave Holland, Life Cycle (ECM, 1983)

George Adams, Sound Suggestions (ECM, 1979)

Sam Rivers, Contrasts (ECM, 1979)

Dave Holland, Emerald Tears (ECM, 1978)

Gateway, Gateway 2 (ECM, 1977)

Tomasz Stanko, Balladyna (ECM, 1976)

Sam Rivers/Dave Holland, Volume One (Improvising Artists, 1976)

Sam Rivers/Dave Holland, Volume Two (Improvising Artists, 1976)

Anthony Braxton, The Montreux/Berlin Concerts (Arista, 1975)

Kenny Wheeler, Gnu High (ECM, 1975)

Jack DeJohnette, Sorcery (OJC, 1974)

Carla Bley, Tropic Appetites (WATT, 1973)

Dave Holland Quartet, Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1973)

Paul Bley, Paul Bley and Scorpio (Milestone, 1972)

Circle, Paris Concert (ECM, 1971)

Chick Corea, A.R.C. (ECM, 1971)

John McLaughlin, Where Fortune Smiles (Dawn, 1970)

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1969)

Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (Columbia/Legacy, 1969)

Related Articles

Dave Holland at Chicago Symphony Center (Concert Review, 2006)

Wayne Shorter and Dave Holland at Carnegie Hall (Concert Review, 2005)

Dave Holland Quintet at the Outremont Theatre (Concert Review, 2004)

Dave Holland: A Giant, and Still Growing (Interview, 2004)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Marek Lazarski

Middle Photo: AAJ Visual Arts Gallery Administrator

Bottom Photo: Ben Johnson

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