Dave Holland: Consistently Exceptional

R.J. DeLuke BY

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Technique as a goal in itself doesn't mean much. I've always tried to develop my technique out of a necessity to play something, rather than to just demonstrate speed on the instrument ... (it) should serve your musical concept.
This interview, originally published on September 29, 2008, is being reprinted to coincide with the summer 2009 tour of The Monterey Quartet featuring bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Eric Harland. The group's live album, Live at the 2007 Jazz Festival (Concord, 2009), will be released on August 25.

It's been a long time since Dave Holland's small hands strummed a ukulele at about the age of five, an endeavor that eventually led him to the guitar and entry in a fledgling band as a teenager around his Wolverhampton, England, home. They played rock and R&B that were popular around 1960. They also decided the needed a bassist, and Holland stepped up, playing what he calls a broomstick bass—"a stick and a piece of string and a box."

"I took to it very quickly," he says matter-of-factly, "and started listening a lot to the bass and how people played and to what was going on in those days."

Nowadays, when someone needs a bassist, Holland, now 62 and one of most iconic bassists on the planet, is probably among the first names that pops to mind. It's how he ended up playing with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter in recent years. That's how it's been since the days he came from his native England at the age of 22 to play with Miles Davis. As a much sought-after player, he cavorted musically from that time forth with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Sam Rivers, Betty Carter, Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk, Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Wheeler, Nick Brignola, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny and so many more. He's still in demand, but not so much as a sideman anymore—though he keeps his hand in that bag with an illustrious group of collaborators.

But landing Holland, one of the great musicians on the planet, as a sideman isn't a high possibility anymore. He's become one of the great bandleaders, not super common for bassists. He's got so many of his own irons in the fire that he can choose when and where to depart from that, this past summer with Hancock's 2008 River of Possibilities tour. In the current business climate, it's a testament to Holland and his stature in the music community that he can get his projects accomplished, whether it's his quintet, his big band, a quartet that played the Newport Jazz Festival in August (the same weekend he helped Hancock deliver pop, funk and jazz hits), or other things that come to his fertile musical mind. And those things seem to be continually brewing.

He's had a critically acclaimed quintet for over a decade that's still alive, even as individual members are making their own musical statements. He has more plans for his big band, similarly lauded in recent years. Holland might record the group that just played at Newport—pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Eric Harland. And he's planning a project with Spanish flamenco players.

His custom is to document the projects along the way, and he's done it again, with the September, 2008 release of new music from a sextet formed about a year-and-a-half ago, a superb group comprised of long-time comrade Robin Eubanks on trombone, Antonio Hart on saxophone, Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on piano and Harland on drums. Pass It On is a significant musical statement, beautifully executed and satisfying on all levels.

With everything on his plate, it would be understandable if the quality of a Holland concert or recording slipped a bit. But it hasn't. The consistently excellent quality of his bands and recordings is extraordinary.

The Recording

"The recordings come out of projects that we're doing," says Holland in his gentlemanly fashion. "That gives them some momentum. [The septet] did several gigs and then, prior to the recording, we played for a week at the Blue Note in New York. So we had a nice warm-up to the recording session. I think the band was really familiar with the music and with each other by the time we got to record it."

This project allowed him to write and arrange for a thicker sound than his quintet. It's also the first time he's recorded under his own name with a pianist, though he has recorded with many master pianists like Hank Jones, Hancock and Corea over the years. (Circle, with Corea in the early 1970s was a cooperative band).

"I can't remember a CD I've done with piano. Guitar and vibes, but this is the first time I used the piano and it was a big part of what the piano was about. To have a chance to play with these two musicians in the rhythm section—Eric Harland on drums, who I played with briefly several years ago and had always wanted to do more with, and Mulgrew Miller, with whom I played on a few occasions, but not enough. I think he's an incredible, wonderful musician, so this was an opportunity to bring that rhythm section together."

The way Holland writes for the horn section gives the band a big rich sound, with nice harmonies as they play contrapuntal lines when playing as a section. "I had that instrumentation in my first quintet, with Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), Steve Coleman (sax) and Julian Priester (trombone). I always enjoyed that three-horn front line. It gives you so many possibilities. One of the reasons I wanted to revisit that instrumentation for this project is because it does give you a lot more arranging possibilities—backgrounds and transition bits—which certainly give a very different sound than the quintet."

Pass It On features new arrangements by Holland of compositions from past recordings. He also includes two new compositions, "Fast Track" and the title track. Eubanks contributed "The Sum of All Parts," which kicks off the CD with a dialog between Harland and Eubanks, the drummer tapping out an exotic rhythm while the trombone sprays out an appropriate melody. It soon grows into a superior piece of band interaction, the group gently rolling along, propelled by Holland and Harland and punctuated by the fine horn section. The leader's fluid bass is highlighted and shows his great affinity for melodic ideas.

"Fast Track" is a good showcase for the inspired piano of Miller, a man not only of chops, but of remarkable taste. The group rolls serenely through the written sections; joyous. "Lazy Snake" is a dreamy stroll, highlighted by the lustrous sound of Sipiagin's excellent trumpet work. He's got great tone and delightful ideas. Hart plays sensually on the ballad "Equality" which, along with "Lazy Snake, is from Dream of the Elders (ECM 1996). He and Eubanks are bright soloists, always acquitting themselves well, whether fiery or more measured. The rhythm section smokes throughout, with the crackling and aggressive drumming of Harland always in step with Holland and Miller. "Rivers Run," from Triplicate (ECM, 1988) and written with saxophonist Sam Rivers in mind, shows the group segueing into free form, but never swaying into something unattractive.

The title track is Holland's dedication to the late, great drummer Ed Blackwell, one of the many giants with whom Holland has performed over his illustrious career. It's an upbeat romp that shows how in synch the group is. It's that way on the entire disk, surely one of the best of 2008.

"The reason I used ["Pass It On"] is because Ed was a great educator as well as a great musician, and was able to communicate the tradition of the music to young players and to introduce them to all the different styles and developments that have happened," says Holland. "Certainly from the prospective of the drums, but also generally. I was lucky enough to see him give workshops on several occasions and witnessed it. I thought this would be a nice dedication to Ed to acknowledge the tradition that he represents and the way he passed it on to the other people." That segued into using the name for the entire disk.

"I thought it worked as a title to an album and the music that we're playing, which has one foot in the tradition and one foot sort of exploring."

On compositions where there were new arrangements, Holland's task was to make full use of the instrumentation. He also revisited them in terms of creative approach, "something that I wanted to see happen with the composition, that would be a new direction ... In the case of some of the [rearranged] compositions, I did actually compose some extra parts to them. I often see compositions as works in progress, and they sometimes resurface after several years and take on a new face or a new relevance."

He adds, "I was looking for a selection of music that I thought worked for the personalities and to the approaches of the players in the group. That was my consideration when putting the music together ... I wanted to put together a CD of music that had a moving progression throughout, where you had solos, but interspersed with those were backgrounds and transition things and so on. It gave it a certain pace to the music. That's one of the things I was looking for with this group.

"It went very quickly. We actually had more time [in the studio] than we needed for doing the CD. We did a couple of extra tracks in the end as well, which means that we had some bonus tracks for various situations like iTunes. In addition to the pieces that are on the CD, there are two other tracks that will be available."


Holland is a gracious and humble leader who respects the people he hires.

"They're a great group of musicians and really fun to play with too," says Holland in his gentlemanly fashion, referring to the sextet, though the sentiment also applies to his longstanding quintet with Potter, Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and drummer Nate Smith. "Everybody gets along very well, which I always like. If you have people who like each other as well as enjoy playing music together, you always end up with a very cohesive and communal result. That's one of the things I always look for in the music, that communal statement. It's one of the things I loved about jazz music from the very beginning, the group quality and the fact that it wasn't about just an individual statement. It was about a group working together to create something. I think a lot of the bands I was drawn to, listened to as a young player, were bands that represented that kind of thing.

"Miles was the same. He was a very low-key leader too. If you went to a concert of Miles Davis, you didn't see Miles on the stage all the time. He'd get up there and play his trumpet solos and his part. He was undoubtedly the leader of the group, but he let everybody in the band have plenty of room to express themselves. His way of leading a band, for me, is a great example."

Miles and Duke Ellington, among others, always favored the individuality of the musicians and it became part of the picture that was painted for the audience. Ellington also deliberately composed in that fashion, writing charts with players like Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton, "Tricky" Sam Nanton, Harry Carney and others in mind. Holland, ever growing as a composer and one who has shown considerable prowess, thinks along similar lines.

"If you have the right musicians, if you have great players," says the bassist, "they know what they are there to do. Then it's just a matter of creating a setting which is going to allow them to do it. Give them opportunity to express themselves. That to me is the main thing. At a certain point, I become the bassist in the band and work from that point of view. Once you set the parameters with the composition and perhaps a little bit of the arrangement, I try to let the musicians tell me where the music is going to go and where they want to take it.

"I try to write music with that potential as well, that gives plenty of room for interpretation on the parts of the individuals."

Holland's Record Label

Amid everything else, Holland also runs his own record label, Dare2, which he started in 2005 after a long and successful run with ECM. Pass It On is the third release. The first was Holland's big band release Overtime, followed by Critical Mass by the quintet. All are distributed worldwide by Universal, with Pass It On distributed in the U.S. by Decca Records.

Says Holland, "It's a difficult time for the record industry, and it's a transition period from selling CDs to selling MP3 and MP4 files online. I don't know what the share is. It's about a 30 percent share, I think at the moment, of the market that selects downloads (as their way of purchasing music). I think that's changing a lot of things, including the ways of distributing through websites like Amazon.com. It's made the access that people have to recorded music much easier.

"Twenty years ago, we'd bring out a record and if your local record store decided not to stock it, we'd come into town to play a gig and nobody could find the record. That's not the case anymore. You don't have to wait and hope the local buyer is going to decide to get four copies of your new album. You can say to people, 'Go to this website. Go to that website.'"

He says it was a case of good timing when he decided to go with Dare2, a move that had been on his mind for a while. Holland was becoming a consistent award-winner with the critics and drawing more mass appeal among fans with his high quality work. In addition to topping jazz magazine polls, Holland was getting Grammy nominations by the bunches for his quintet recordings. Both his big band recordings won Grammy awards for Best Large Jazz Ensemble, What Goes Around (ECM) in 2002 and Overtime in 2005.

"It put us in a good position to decide to do this and, at the same time, to have a good distribution offer. It came down to one man, Daniel Richard, who's the head of Verve Jazz France in Paris. And Wolff Muller, who is the head of Universal in Europe. Both those gentlemen had a lot of faith in what we're doing and the idea of what the label is. They decided to take a chance and offer us the distribution deal. I was very happy that they did.

Dare2 is planning new releases in January, one an octet—the quintet, plus Gary Smulyan on baritone sax, Sipiagin on trumpet, and Hart on alto sax. The other will be the flamenco project Holland started about a year ago with Spanish gypsy flamenco musicians, featuring guitarist Pepe Habichuela, which will be recorded later in 2009.

Playing the Bass

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.

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.

"I always felt that technique had to serve your musical ideas. Technique as a goal in itself doesn't mean much. I've always tried to develop my technique out of a necessity to play something, rather than to just demonstrate speed on the instrument. That's a quite important thing. Technique should serve your musical concept. I always thought of technique as a means for you to realize the ideas that you have. Technique is connected to what you're trying to do.

"Different techniques are required for different things. You can't take the technique that a classical trumpet player has and apply it to playing like Louis Armstrong and vice versa. The techniques that different players have are the techniques that are suited to their playing. Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell are anther good example. Two great pianists. Completely different types of techniques. You can't say one is better than the other, but each one developed a technique completely suited to the style they were developing and to produce the sound out of the piano that they were looking for."

These days, the ever-busy Holland doesn't really have a practice regimen. "On the road, you don't always have a lot of time between all the travel stuff you have to do and the sound check and the gig ... I do warm-up and try find and hour here or there," he says,

"When I'm at home, I have a thing that I do. It's a mixture of technical things—scales and stuff—and just playing, improvising. Trying different things, different ideas. Developing a language."

The bass Holland plays also varies. He has one for recording and playing gigs near home north of New York City when it can be easily transported. That one, which he's had for some 14 years, doesn't even have a brand name, but he estimates it at about 150 years old and of French design. "I like the sound of it a lot. It's a fun instrument to play."

Since the tragic events of 9/11 in the U.S., the ensuing tightening of security at airports, and restrictions on what can passengers can bring, causes problems for everyone—especially if one is carrying around the beast that is the upright acoustic bass. Nearly three years ago, Holland found and procured a smaller bass, one that makes traveling much easier.

Says Holland, "I've been traveling with a bass that was originally conceived by Ira Coleman (the bassist), and designed by David Gage, who lives here in New York. It's a small—not in string length, but small in body length—acoustic bass that has been designed in order to enable us to fly and travel with the airlines that now have weight restrictions ... My instrument, in the hard case, weighs 100 pounds, the full-size instrument. And this new instrument that's been designed with a lighter case and a smaller body size weighs about 52 pounds. It's called a Czech-Ease [acoustic travel bass]. It's made by an instrument-making company in Czechoslovakia. It was designed by David [Gage]. He invested a lot of money, as well, to develop this whole process in Czechoslovakia. They've become quite popular instruments. More and more people are using them.

"The only other solution is to borrow an instrument as you go. That's not very satisfactory, certainly for me. I would rather have an instrument that I know is going to be ready to play when I take it out of the case, and it's got the strings that I like, the setup that I like, and so on. Even though it's a relatively new instrument, it has a good sound. For concert situations, we're usually playing through a PA and amps and so on. The instrument sounds very fine. It feels fine to play. I enjoy playing it ... It's solved so many problems for me and reduced my stress levels when I'm trying to travel around the world. It's made it a lot easier to go through the whole check-in process."

Holland rarely plays the electric bass, though he found himself in that situation this year when he joined Hancock's tour playing hits from various stages of the great pianists career. At Newport, for example, the band played tunes including the funky "Cantaloupe Island" and "Chameleon."

"That was a rare occasion. The last time I played a Fender style bass was 1991, with Pat Metheny, Herbie and Jack (DeJohnette). We did a tour together. I have an acoustic bass guitar that I like a lot. I used it on a record with Herbie called The New Standard (Verve, 1996). A couple of tracks on that, not on the whole record. Subsequently, when we toured I used it. But other than that I haven't played bass guitar in a long time. It was a bit of a surprise to me. I only found out the day before the rehearsals that he was going to be playing music that would need a bass guitar. I didn't get much warm-up time. It was on-the-job training, I'm afraid," says Holland with a self-effacing chuckle. "We had to get Fender to ship one out to L.A. for the rehearsals. I ended up keeping it."


Fortunately, Holland remains a very busy man, working steadily and juggling his various projects quite well. While his big band is on hold at the moment, he says the next thing might be another CD, which would make it easier to get gigs for the large group. The success of that outfit has been a very pleasant surprise.

"If you said to me 20 years ago that I would be able to go out on the road with a big band, I'd have had some serious doubts. Or that I'd write any music for a bid band. That was a big challenge to me, as well. It took me a long time for me to get up the courage to do it."

I've always worked a lot. It's not always been financially successful. We've managed to sustain a working band since 1982. In the last 10 or 12 years, we've gotten a lot more options and choices. I've even had the opportunity to be on the road with a big band, which is a fairly challenging situation in this day and age. That was one of the opportunities I had, which I was very happy it came a about as a result of increased interest in what we were doing.

"We're going to keep the quintet project going," he says. "It hasn't worked as much as it has in the past, this last year. But it's still going and it's still something all five people involved in it are interested in continuing ... We're getting ready to do something this fall and we did something early this year. It's been together 10 or 11 years. Even though, creatively, we're still writing music for it and doing gigs together, there's also a need on all our parts to do other things. Chris [Potter] has his own project as does Robin [Eubanks]. Steve [Nelson] and Nate [Smith] have their own things that they're doing, as well as things with other people. My idea is to keep the quintet as an ongoing group, but also have some additional things.

Holland appreciates the great roll he's been on, but is very level-headed. He's humble about it, not about to rest on laurels, and not about to think that things are always going to be rosy.

"I feel very fortunate to have gotten to this point where I can think about doing something and actually find a way to get it happening. I'm enjoying that opportunity and trying to make the most of it while it's still there."

Selected Discography

The Monterey Quartet, Live at the 2007 Jazz Festival
Dave Holland Quintet, Pass It On (Dare2, 2008)
Dave Holland Big Band Dave Holland Quintet, Critical Mass (Dare2, 2006)
Dave Holland Big Band, Overtime (Dare2, 2005)
Kenny Wheeler, What Now? (CamJazz, 2005)
Dave Holland Quintet, Extended Play: Live at Birdland (ECM, 2003)
Dave Holland Big Band, What Goes Around (ECM, 2002)
Dave Holland Quintet, Not for Nothin' (ECM, 2001)
Dave Holland Quintet, Prime Directive (ECM, 1999)
Dave Holland Quintet, Points of View (ECM, 1998)
Dave Holland Quartet, Dream of the Elders (ECM, 1996)
Michael Brecker, Tales from the Hudson (Impulse!, 1996)
Gateway, Homecoming (ECM, 1995)
Dave Holland Quartet, Extensions (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)
Dave Holland Quintet, Seeds of Time (ECM, 1985)
Dave Holland Quintet, Jumpin' In (ECM, 1984)
Dave Holland, Life Cycle (ECM, 1983)
Dave Holland, Emerald Tears (ECM, 1978)
Kenny Wheeler, Gnu High (ECM, 1975)
Dave Holland Quartet, Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1973)
Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1969)
Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (Columbia/Legacy, 1969)

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