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Artist Profiles

Dave Holland's Opus

By Published: November 11, 2003

Dave Holland is truly a synthesis of his experiences and influences. From stints with John Surman and John Stevens, to Miles Davis' electric band, to working with Braxton and Rivers, to forming superstar-laden quintets in the

Bassist and composer Dave Holland has led a 35-year career that many musicians would find enviable: working with Miles Davis' iconoclastic electric ensembles of the late '60s and early '70s; following that up with Chick Corea and Anthony Braxton in the cooperative ensemble Circle; making his first date as a leader with Braxton and Sam Rivers as sidemen; recording sessions of solo, duo, and bass-quartet configurations that have won the esteem of bassists worldwide; and to top it all off he is currently leading a quintet and big band that have both won accolades and confirmed his status as one of the most adventurous composers and bandleaders in contemporary jazz.

Growing up in Wolverhampton, England, Holland played electric guitar and bass in rock bands, but hearing recordings by Leroy Vinnegar and Ray Brown (he cites Brown as a strong influence even today) piqued his interest in the double bass. He studied under James Merritt (not to be confused with Jymie Merritt) and attended London's Guildhall School of Music starting in 1964, where in his spare time he played Dixieland in the traditional jazz revival that England was undergoing at that period. Being in London in the mid '60s opened Holland up to a world of creative new ideas in jazz, however, and in looking for work, he ended up making sessions and performances with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (also a major influence), saxophonist John Surman, pianist Chris McGregor and others in the nascent British avant-garde scene. But at this point Holland had not committed to becoming a bandleader or even a touring sideman; rather, his aspirations were to become a studio musician. Nevertheless, in 1968 Miles Davis discovered Holland playing at Ronnie Scott's Club, and though Holland was already planning on moving to New York - "all the musicians, everybody said 'you know, you really should move to New York'" - Miles encouraged him to take the plunge and made him the replacement for Ron Carter, first on acoustic bass and then on electric. "It kind of surprised everybody; people saw me in New York and then I would tell them 'yeah, I'm working for Miles.'" And though some might find the experience of working for Miles daunting, "[he] was no dictator. He picked the right musicians and let them find a collective voice... If you listen to the live albums, Live at Fillmore for example, that's the direction the group was heading... it was distinctively Miles, but there was a collectivity going on as well. Sometimes we found a groove, sometimes we went in other directions."

But as Holland got a taste of the possibilities that the 'other directions' offered, namely free playing, he and pianist Chick Corea left the band in 1971. They recruited saxophonist Anthony Braxton (who had just returned from a stint in Paris) and percussionist Barry Altschul, and thus began the short-lived but highly influential Circle. Applying what they had learned in their respective outfits, namely the importance of a collective effort and group musical direction, the band integrated open performances with compositional elements, creating a delicate balance between freedom and structure. Work was slim, however, and after six months "playing for a few people here and there" the group moved to Europe, with Holland living in London and Braxton and Altschul spending much of their time in Paris. The group found a somewhat more receptive audience on the continent, and recorded three albums (two of them live) during their sojourn. As part of this second period in England, Holland was also able to make sessions with guitarist Derek Bailey and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble ( So What Do You Think, Tangent, 1971), but he realized that he "really needed to be in New York. That's where it all was for me, and I really missed it." By the end of the year, Circle returned to the U.S. and the group disbanded following Corea's departure. Holland settled in Los Angeles briefly before returning to New York late in 1972 for good. He has no reservations about returning to the U.S. and not staying in Europe, for he "felt more at home with American views and the lifestyle... granted, things are hard for an artist here. It's better in some places in Europe, but even in England, it's hard." Holland spent the remainder of the decade working with Altschul as part of Sam Rivers' powerhouse trio and the jazz rock group Gateway (with Jack DeJohnette and John Abercrombie) before again embarking on leading his own ensembles in the ‘80s, first with Wheeler, trombonist Julian Priester and saxophonist Steve Coleman. The current configuration was formed in 1998, with Robin Eubanks replacing Priester and Steve Wilson and, later, Chris Potter replacing Coleman.

Much like Miles and Mingus before him, Holland is, rather than being committed to specific instrumental voicings, committed instead to specific players and the direction that they lend to the music. The primary vehicle for this workshop is the Dave Holland Quintet, featuring Eubanks, Potter, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and drummer Nate Smith (who recently replaced Billy Kilson). The influence that players like Eubanks and Nelson have had on his music is tremendous: "Robin can play a smooth, straight line or in a low, gutbucket style, multiphonics, whatever. This [tension] is what produces the music's direction." His small group does present many contrasts - for example, a tight bass line might be placed up against two very different chords from the horns - and to produce these contrasts, Holland doesn't just write from the bass, but "from many different angles, to try and see where everyone is coming from," a democratic approach indeed. Though his quintet is, in terms of its structure, a far cry from the free jazz outings of Circle, or even the unbridled quartet with Braxton and Sam Rivers, Holland's main objective with the group is "to give as much freedom as possible to the players...[while] striking a balance between structure and improvisation." A statement such as this belies the influence of the composers and improvisers he has worked with: Miles, Braxton and Rivers have all based their music on this balancing act. And the openness that the composer/improviser must have to the contributions of his sidemen is fundamental, for "no one wants to be an island... [collectivity] is the point of making this music."

Yet in contrast to the openness offered by his quintet, Holland's big band (debuted two years ago) necessarily requires a greater emphasis on structure, and presents the challenge of creating an even more delicate balance between the framework and the meaty essence of spontaneity. The nucleus of the big band is, of course, his working quintet, which contributes much to making the larger group as tight as it sounds. On their 2002 studio release, What Goes Around, one is immediately struck by the fact that, for a thirteen-piece orchestra, the fluidity and cohesiveness of the group is that of a much smaller unit (and, conversely, his small-group writing sometimes makes that band sound much larger). As of yet, he hasn't given up writing for improvised settings, eschewing the possibility of strictly written pieces or 'concert music', though a yet-unnamed 2004 album by the big band will present one of his most challenging works, "The Monterey Suite", a long-form composition that was given a test run at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2002. And like Ellington before him, Holland is happy to be presented with the challenge of allowing that same freedom to the soloist in a larger setting. When asked if there are any grand changes in store for his working method, Holland is eager to note that "the quintet is still the main thing. I'll keep the big band around for special projects and experiments, but the small combo will continue indefinitely."

Holland credits much of the success with his big band project and the quintet with the freedom offered him by ECM, for which he began recording in 1971 with a pair of duo albums, one with bassist Barre Phillips ( Music from Two Basses ) and another with Derek Bailey ( Improvisations for Cello and Guitar ). With the exception of a 1993 solo bass album ( Ones All, Intuition ), all of his recorded output as a leader has been for ECM, and though famed producer Manfred Eicher (the label's proprietor) produced many of Holland's earlier dates, the bassist-composer is now producing his own sessions and has the option of recording practically any vision he has for his bands. And though "economically, the big band is very difficult," the label's support has engendered everything from solo sessions to a 13-piece ensemble. The challenges of the latter would most likely not have been possible without ECM's backing.

Dave Holland is truly a synthesis of his experiences and influences. From stints with John Surman and John Stevens, to Miles Davis' electric band, to working with Braxton and Rivers, to forming superstar-laden quintets in the ‘80s and ‘90s, his pedigree as an improviser is second to few. But not only have these experiences resulted in his status as a world-class bassist, but as a composer and bandleader whose ideas are fresh and adventurous enough to infuse the straight ahead with more than enough juice for years to come.

Recommended Listening:

  • Miles Davis - In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969)
  • Dave Holland - Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1972)
  • Abercrombie/DeJohnette/Holland - Gateway (ECM, 1975)
  • Anthony Braxton - Quartet Dortmund-1976 (hatOLOGY, 2001)
  • Dave Holland - Jumpin' In (ECM, 1983)
  • Dave Holland - Not For Nothin' (ECM, 2001)

Visit Dave Holland on the web at www.daveholland.com .

Photo Credit
Henry Benson



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