Dave Holland: A Weekend of Bass
“ [Miles] was a very generous bandleader in terms of giving plenty of musical room to the people in the group. He led the group with a very gentle touch. He wasn't a dictator in any way of what should happen. ”
There may be no instrument that is more vital yet less heralded in a jazz group than the bass. The bass provides much of the rhythmic and harmonic foundation as well as outlining the form. If the bassist is solid, locking in with the drums and piano, everyone else in the group can relax. And often, if the bassist is doing his job correctly, the audience doesn't even notice him. Bass solos are some of the more difficult to pull off successfully due to the inherent muddiness of the lower register. Bass players, mostly in a supportive role, must be willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the group. It takes a special kind of person to do it and do it well.
So it's altogether fitting for some of the great bassists playing today to be recognized in a weekend devoted to this often unrecognized instrument in the capper for the SFJAZZ Spring Season. On Friday, May 25 the legendary Ray Brown will bring a trio and Christian McBride will lead a group at Herbst Theatre. The following night the same theater will feature the Dave Holland Quintet and the Charles Mingus-inspired group Mingus Amungus.
In the following interview, Dave Holland discusses where his music is at today, his days playing with Miles Davis and recording the seminal fusion albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, participation in the free jazz movement, and performing with Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock, among other topics.
All About Jazz: What will we hear at your upcoming show?
Dave Holland: Well, I'm coming there with my quintet, which has been my working band for the last four years. It has Robin Eubanks on trombone, Chris Potter on saxophones, Billy Kilson on drums, and Steve Nelson on vibraphone. We'll be playing some music probably selected from our most recent release, Prime Directive. And also there'll be some new compositions, which are going to be featured on an upcoming CD that's coming out in August called Not for Nothin.' Probably most of the material will be drawn from those two recordings.
AAJ: How has your group evolved over the last four years?
DH: I think what's happened is as a result of playing so much together is that we've really been able to develop the musical relationships and create compositional settings which allow us to explore those relationships and the individual musical personalities. I think the music has definitely been developing over the period of the group being together. I'm trying to think how I can put it in a few words. It's come a long way, I think, in terms of concept. We've discovered potentials that are existing in the band and in the ideas of the musicians involved and we're exploring them.
AAJ: How would you describe your music?
DH: Well, at this stage in my life it's really music which covers a very broad range of languages. We are certainly developing the music in terms of form and content. I would say essentially the basic reference point for the music, of course, is the jazz tradition. And then along with that we're developing a lot of new ideas and rhythmic approaches to the music and harmonic approaches which we find challenging and create settings for us to develop ourselves as players. That's really what's happening with the music. We're creating settings for development of our own playing, I guess.
AAJ: Could you give some examples of the harmonic or rhythmic approaches that you're exploring?
DH: I don't want to get too technical. Let me see how I can explain this in a simple way. We're doing things in lots of different kinds of time signatures. With many kinds of different rhythmic settings for those time signatures. And we're trying to create a form which presents some new challenges to us as players. But I have to say that in essence what I see the music as doing is creating a multilayered type of music where we have elements which are very immediate and simple in terms of their directness, and then on other layers of the music we have more and more complex kinds of things.
So, this kind of goes along with something that I've been sort of developing over time, which is the idea that the music can exist on a number of levels. I think, for instance, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn were great examples of being able to do that. Their melodies were so immediate and struck you so immediately and the rhythmic drive of the music immediately connected with you. But on repeated listenings of the music you found more and more layers of interest and complexity and originality and so on which was there, which we are attempting to do the same thing. So the rhythmic side of the music is a very immediate connection, I think. And we're working a lot with the idea of the music having a dance reference in a sense, having that kind of propulsion.
AAJ: Why did you decide to go with the vibraphone over the piano in your group?
DH: Well, it's not over the piano. I've just been trying to create instrumental settings that are somewhat unique. My early group, the quintet that was formed in '82 was a group that consisted of three horns, bass and drums. At that time I enjoyed the sort of open harmonic setting that that provided. Later in the '80s my writing sort of went in a direction of incorporating more harmonic forms for improvising on. At that point around probably '88 I started playing with [guitarist] Kevin Eubanks. He joined my group in '88 and we had a quartet for a while that recorded a record called Extensions. And that was sort of the start of a new phase of the music for me. Following Kevin, Steve Nelson started playing with us. So the chordal aspect has been provided by those instruments so far.
The nice thing about the vibes is that not only is a harmonic instrument but it's a part of the percussion family too, it's a mallet instrument. So it has that whole reference that comes out of the African xylophone and so on. And we try to explore some of those things in the music also. The piano rhythm section is very stylized and has been done time and time again. Of course, there's more to be done with it and there's great pianists around. But what I'm looking for in the music at the moment is a different kind of context soundwise and instrumentally. So that's why I have that choice at the moment. But I have nothing against pianists, I've played with some great ones.
AAJ: How do you see the role of the bass, and how would you describe your particular style on the bass?
DH: Well, the role of the bass very much depends on the music it's playing. I find myself in the course of an evening of music providing a lot of different roles. Sometimes supporting, sometimes leading, sometimes melodic, sometimes more rhythmic. Traditionally, of course, the bass has a particular role in the rhythm section, a supportive role. It kind of unites the harmony and the rhythm, working closely with the drums and the piano. That's a role I'm happy to provide at times in the music. That can be done without limiting the amount of dialogue and conversation the bass can enter into. So, I find myself balancing those two roles: the supportive role and the more provocative role of dialogue and conversation.
AAJ: What was it like to play with Miles and to record In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew?
DH: First of all, how it was the play with Miles. Of course it was a great opportunity, a great honor. And for a young musician of 21, which is what I was when I joined his band, it was a chance to observe and to experience his wonderful focus and creativity. It's been a reference point for me ever since, the things I experienced in his group. He was a very generous bandleader in terms of giving plenty of musical room to the people in the group. He led the group with a very gentle touch. He wasn't a dictator in any way of what should happen. He pretty much created or set up a direction for the music and then let you go and find your own creative interpretation within that setting. So that was a wonderful opportunity.
As for the recordings, they were done over a period of time. We were going into the studio fairly frequently. We weren't recording particular albums at particular times, at least that was my impression. We'd go into the studio and maybe record one or two tracks and then another week later or whenever and do some more. And at a certain point some of those things were put together and put on record. They were part of an ongoing sequence of recordings that we were doing, and that were coming out on different records.
Those recordings were very, very differentas you may have noticed at this point now that there are live recordings available of the working bandthe things that were being released at the time were different settings from what we were doing in the live performances. That was a significant thing for me. He wasn't going in the studio to record the band as it sounded on gigs. He was going in with particular groups of people, sometimes a quartet, sometimes 9 or 10 people, and whatever grouping that suited the piece that he was going to record.
AAJ: How much of Bitches Brew was written down and how much was free improvisation?
DH: Just enough was written down to give it shape and substance. That was one of the great skills that Miles had. That's also evident on earlier records like Kind of Blue. The material is very minimal in a sense, but because it's such strong material it gave a great deal of focus and potential to the improvisers, to the musicians. So, although the written material wasn't very elaborate or extensive, it was enough to give just enough character to it. Really, what he was doing was creating a setting for improvising in. And creating a context to creative an improvisation. And a lot of times it was very much a communal group improvisation that was going on, a collective, you might say. So there was certainly written material, sometimes more, sometimes less.
And there was material also written by other people that Miles reworked and edited and changed in a way that would provide the kind of settings that he was looking for. So Joe Zawinul would bring in a composition and Miles would find a way to use it, which is often quite different from the way Joe had intended the piece. But in a way it would give it maybe perhaps more of Miles' characteristic ideas at the time.
AAJ: How aware were you at the time that you were in the vanguard of a new style of jazz?
DH: Well, I'll say that obviously any time you play with a great musician, and of course Miles was a great musician, you're aware that you're involved in something important. As to historic significance and things like this, if you start thinking and dwelling on those things it's an inhibitive force that doesn't help you. So you're basically trying to deal with things that are immediate, which is to play the music and to play it as well as you can. If you start thinking too much or at all even about if it may or may not have historic significance then of course it can inhibit you. On the other hand, I was somebody who grew up listening and examining minutely Miles' recordings. I of course was aware that there were probably going to be other musicians doing the same thing with recordings that I was doing with Miles. So I tried not to think about that too much and just to get on with it. Otherwise you become kind of self-conscious, I think.
AAJ: You also played with Thelonious Monk toward the end of his career.
Holland: Yes, briefly.
AAJ: What was that like?
Holland: It was another unique experience. He was absolutely one-of-a-kind. To play in a rhythm section with Thelonious Monk on piano was a fantastic experience. Any time you play with a great musician it kind of gives you a reference point for your own music, which you hadn't had before. It puts you into a juxtaposition with that player and helps you to see your own playing in a certain light, I think. And that was a great experience for me to play with him and to play that book of music that he had written.
AAJ: I saw you in the late '70s with Sam Rivers. It seemed like you were doing mostly free improvisation.
DH: We were. If it was a trio or duo then in fact there was no written material at all. It was all open-form improvising. But we did it for eight or nine years. It got to a point where I think a lot of people couldn't tell whether there was written material or not. Because the language and communication that we built up over that time was very clear, I think. At times it sounded like it was written. Things would happen, events would happen that sounded like they were planned or written out.
AAJ: Would you consider yourself one of the prime movers in the free jazz or free improvisation movement?
DH: I wouldn't say so, because that started in '59 with Ornette or even earlier with Ornette [Coleman] or Cecil Taylor and Coltrane's work in the '60s and so on. I would say they were the prime movers. I was influenced by that music while I was still in London prior to '68 when I came to New York. I was living in London between '64 and '68 and during that time we were listening to the recordings, myself and my musician friends. We were trying to take that inspiration and do something with it. Yes, certainly that was a big influence on my playing. And after leaving Miles we put together a band, Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, Barry Altschul and myself called Circle. And that continued on with working on those kind of musical settings, open-form settings, trying different things, how the compositional form relates to improvisation.
AAJ: What did you enjoy about free improvisation?
DH: I enjoyed the choices that were available. Especially the fact that any evening you could approach the performance with whatever you had on your mind at that time. Whatever kind of mood, whatever kind of musical thought processes were going on with you on that day, you could put them into the music that evening. So it was a wonderful exploration of your musical ideas. Playing compositions, playing on forms can be equally interesting and you can give time to it. They each present you with different challenges. And in the end you're still faced with the idea to be creative and to do something creative with the musical setting.
I found after a while by about the mid-'80s I began to realize that there were certain musical contexts that were not accessible in an open-form setting. There were musical contexts that you needed to have a compositional setting in order to realize them. I can give you an example of somebody else's. If you take "Giant Steps" as a song, you could improvise in an open-form setting for 100 years and never as a group come across that and do it. It took Coltrane, it took a composer to sit down and write that setting and create that musical form and chord sequence, which of course has resulted in people learning a lot about particular chord movements and negotiating certain kinds of modulations and so on. And that can only happen through a composition. So there are certain times when compositions serve a very important purpose.
AAJ: You'll also be appearing in June at Yoshi's with the Gateway Trio. What kind of music will you be playing with them?
DH: That trio was formed around 1974, '75. It's John Abercrombie on guitar and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Jack and I actually our musical relationship and friendship go back to about 1967. So this is a very long-term friendship that we've had. John Abercrombie I met shortly after that. So these are two friends, these are two musical companions. And each of us developed our own music and our own groups. But we've found that still this group, this collection of people, this trio is still relevant to us, and we have a lot of fun playing it. Although we don't play every year, there's actually been some quite long periods when the band hasn't gotten together, somehow eventually it comes around and we gravitate toward each other and decide to do some gigs together and write some new music and do a new recording and so on.
So we got together last summer at the Montreal Festival. I was one of the invited guests at the Festival. I was asked to put on a concert series there of five concerts. And one of the concerts I proposed and did was with the Gateway Trio. I guess as a result of us getting together last summer we started talking about doing a tour again. So we are doing this week at Yoshi's and then we're gonna be going to Europe for the first two weeks of July to tour some of the summer festivals there. The music we'll be playing will be certainly drawn from, we've done four CDs with the band over the years. There's also quite a bit of other material that we've played that hasn't been on record and we'll probably be drawing from that collection of music. And there will probably be some brand-new things too. So, we have quite a large collection of music that we play and we'll be choosing things from that.
AAJ: Before I let you go I have to ask you about playing with one of my favorite pianists, Herbie Hancock.
DH: One of my favorites too. Herbie has been a great inspiration to me in recent years. We really didn't play very much before 1990. He was in Miles' band for the first month I was in the group, so we played briefly then and we knew each other casually. But in 1990 we did a tour with Jack DeJohnette and Pat Metheny called Parallel Realities. We did a world tour with that group. And following that Herbie and I found we had a nice musical relationship and a nice friendship and we ended up working together. I worked in his trio and did some recording with them. We did the New Standards recording. And then later on we worked as a quartet.
And Herbie is a real improviser. Every night he comes to the gig ready to do something new, and approaches it that way. And that's a great challenge. It really made me think about what improvisation is and how to keep that kind of spontaneity in your playing, which of course is harder as time goes by. To keep putting yourself on the spot, throwing yourself out into what you might say is the void and trying to find something new out there. And Herbie really can do that. And he has a wonderful energy, a positive energy onstage and in his life and is a great communicator in the music. There's a lot of back and forth sort of trading of musical ideas and building on what you hear each other play and so on. It's a wonderful experience and I had a great time playing with him.
AAJ: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
DH: I could mention a couple of new projects I have got going. One is a 13-piece band that we did in Montreal, premiered there as part of that invitational series. And we recorded it in January. That will be out probably early next year. And we just toured in Europe with an octet. And within these groups the quintet is still there but we've expanded it. The octet is the quintet with three other musicians: Antonio Hart on alto and flute, Gary Smulyan on baritone, and Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn.
AAJ: Is that new for you to be writing big band-type arrangements?
DH: I think the first ones I did were around '87. What I'm doing now is developing the project as an idea to record it, which we've done, and also to take it out on tour and do some work with it. So that's a difference.
AAJ: Do you enjoy the coloration, the possibilities that a larger group enables?
DH: Well, that's what I'm enjoying about writing for the group. It's presenting me with a new set of challenges. For me that's a welcome thing. It's given me a new horizon, you might say, to work towards. There's a lot for me to learn about that. And I'm happy with what we've done so far. But I feel like there's a tremendous amount of possibilities for me to develop within that context. So I do intend to continue on. Yeah, I do enjoy it. It's a tremendous amount of work. I'm not a musician who can just sit down and do an arrangement for a big band in an afternoon. It takes me a while to do it. But it's very satisfying once it's done. But it's very time intensive.