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Dave Holland: Consistently Exceptional

By Published: July 6, 2009
Holland is always a pleasure to hear and always in first-rate company. Those fortunate enough to catch him in a club or concert venue will see that he stands relatively erect while playing his instrument; deep in concentration, gently rocking, but never looking demonically possessed by his muse. He's listening intently to all that goes on around him. His face alternates between a grimace that emanates from the physical effort of playing the grand contrabass, and a smile, derived from the joy of making extraordinary music, born of great communication and interplay with his band mates. His technique is superlative; ideas free flowing and always in touch with what's going on. His sound is deep and strong, and his soloing always imaginative. Whether it's breakneck bebop or a slower, more contemplative stroll, he's got great ideas.

He says he found it more interesting, when he switched from rhythm guitar to bass as a youngster, to play bass lines rather than guitar chords. He joined a band playing electric bass and there was enough work around to go pro, so he quit school at 15. Even though he played bass guitar, he began listening to players like Ray Brown and Leroy Vinegar. Soon after hearing them, he got myself an acoustic bass and started playing along with records, trying to figure out the parts.

"I didn't take my first gig on acoustic bass until I was about 17, and then I pretty much stayed on acoustic after that. Until I joined Miles. I went back to bass guitar after I'd been with Miles for about a year," he says.

Dave Holland The love affair with the bass grew. Holland attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in England for three years in the mid-'60s, on the recommendation of James E. Merritt, the principal bassist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra who was teaching there. He became the principle bassist in the school orchestra and was beginning to get jazz gigs in London. By 1966, was playing with John Surman, John McLaughlin, Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Chris McGregor and other London area musicians.

By 1967, he was appearing frequently at Ronnie Scott's famed London jazz club with bands, and occasionally jazz greats. He was in a band that shared a bill with Bill Evans. Miles Davis, who had once employed Evans and loved his playing, was in London too, and showed up. He heard Holland play, and the famed phone call and hiring came a bit later. Filles de Kilimanjaro (Columbia, 1968), In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) were among albums Holland contributed to. In 1970, he left Miles to join Corea, Braxton and Barry Altschul to form the band Circle. From there, his career took off to working with other jazz notable of both the older generation and his own. And in the '80s he started forming his own groups. Since then, while he has still done monster sideman work, he has been a consistent leader of innovative groups.

"I loved the sensual thing of the bass, the feeling of it, the way it resonated, the type of tone," says Holland. "When I first started playing, I wasn't making much of a sound at all, but the people I was listening to were inspiring me. The sound that Ray Brown produced and that Leroy Vinegar produced, that was my role model. I started to work on finding out how to make that sound on the instrument. I never did, because I'm not them. But you do use that as a role model when you start out. That's what you build from. That was my goal at the beginning, and then learning as much as I could off records. I wasn't reading music at that time. I learned everything by ear. I just listened to the records and tried to copy what I hear and figure out bits of solos and phrases and things to do. That's how it built up."

"When I started playing acoustic bass in the early '60s, there was quite revolution going on around the bass playing style in jazz. Technically, it was moved up a notch by a lot of players. That was the environment I was growing up in. The benchmark was being moved and I started to figure out how to do certain things on the instrument, copy what I heard on records and so on. That was the basis of developing it.

"Scott LaFaro made a huge impact on bass players, the bassist with Bill Evans' trio in the '60s. He had a very fluid soloing style as well as a very original way of accompanying. That gave all of us a lot of stuff to think about in terms of what was possible on the instrument and how the role of the instrument was changing. That was the context in which I was growing up in, so naturally, as a young player I was picking up on those things and trying to adapt them to my own playing."

Holland has monstrous chops to call upon when necessary. But, like all the great instrumentalists, he believes it is not an end unto itself.

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