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Artist Profiles

Dave Holland's Opus

By Published: November 11, 2003
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 .

Photo Credit
Henry Benson

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