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Dave Holland: More Than Just Notes

Dave Holland: More Than Just Notes

Courtesy Roberto Cifarelli


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I think one of the beautiful things about art in general is that it provokes a personal experience. You look at a beautiful painting of some kind and each person will have different emotional responses to it. And the same with music.
—Dave Holland
The creative juices, if not the hunger, desert many artists as they advance in years. Repetition and mediocrity—a blunting of the sword— can creep in, while past glories are often left to provide the kindling for flames that never quite catch. Such charges could never be levelled at English bassist Dave Holland, who turns seventy-five in October. On the contrary, what is striking about Holland's output in the fifty years since emerging as a leader in his own right is the consistently high quality of his releases. Holland simply doesn't do bad records.

Another Land (Edition Records, 2021), the debut of Holland's new trio, is another keeper. Joined by two of the most distinctive voices on their respective instruments, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire, Holland leads the trio on a thrilling set that meshes the blues, rock, funk and post-bop idioms.

Early Days

This trio, in fact, has been around since 2016, when Holland, Eubanks and Calvaire toured Russia together. While that was Holland's first time playing with Calvaire, his relationship with Eubanks dates back to the late '80s when the guitarist was part of Holland's quartet—alongside Steve Coleman, and Marvin "Smitty" Smith—that recorded Extensions (ECM, 1989).

There were sporadic collaborations between Holland and Eubanks in the following years, but it wasn't until 2012, when putting together his excellent Prism band, that Holland's musical relationship with Eubanks put down deeper roots. "That was really when we started playing together again in trio and quartet from," says Holland.

A Riot Of Roots

Eubanks is in thrilling form on Another Land, exhibiting variously the searing blues of Jimi Hendrix, the gritty blues-funk of James Blood Ulmer and the lyrical touch of Wes Montgomery.

"Montgomery he always speaks of and Jimi Hendrix he always speaks of," confirms Holland, "two people who were role models for him in different ways. I love Kevin's playing because it spans that kind of range—firm roots in the tradition, firm roots in the blues, firm roots in the more modern Hendrix-kind of music, which enables us to visit a lot of places in the music, and I think that's what we've captured on this album."

Eubanks lets rip on songs like the funk-heavy "Gravewalker," the fiery, post-bop-influenced "Mashup" and the slow blues set-closer "Bring It Back Home." Yet there is another, more gentle side to Eubanks playing, particularly on the title track and the beautifully nuanced, unaccompanied guitar piece, "Quiet Fire."

"You know, I think it shows Kevin in so many different roles," says Holland of Another Land. "And the other thing is he sounds like nobody else, which is not an easy thing to do on the guitar—to have such a strong, individual voice on it. I felt that the first time we played together back in the 1980s."

Obed Calvaire

Calvaire too, leaves an indelible stamp on the music with his highly personal rhythmic language. Miami born but of Haitian descent, the drummer's multi-layered playing suggests the accents of the Afro-Caribbean culture that surrounded him growing up, which gives him, Holland says, "quite a unique perspective."

Having obtained both a bachelor and a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music, Calvaire also boasts the technical chops to feel at home in just about any setting.

"He's an incredible sight reader," Holland attests. "I've seen him play in big bands and he can read pretty much anything you put in front of him. He can pick up the music in an instant. When we're working on a new tune he's got amazing retention of some of the complicated forms that we play and always comes up with a creative interpretation to them."

Holland sings the praises of Calvaire's versatility and the range of vocabulary he brings to Another Land, from swing and a very sensitive touch on brushes to more dynamic polyrhythms—rock-infused, too—that drive the trio into heady territory.

"And then he's got all the funk grooves and all the Latin grooves," notes Holland. "When we started playing with Obed it gave us the perfect third member of the trio, which enabled Kevin and I to really go wherever we want. Obed feeds us things in the music but also responds beautifully—he's a great listener. He picks up on ideas immediately and we have a lot of fun throwing things at each other back and forth. You might say we're having musical games sometimes, but creatively doing it. It's so much fun, I do a lot of smiling when I'm playing with them."

Plugged In

Holland, for his part, sounds as good as ever. Take your pick of his solos, but those on the slower numbers "Passing Time" and "Bring it Back Home"—a truly handsome blues—capture the bassist at his most beguiling. You have to journey back a fair way, however, to find Holland recording with an electric bass, which he does on three of Another Land's tracks.

"I had only played bass guitar a few times in recent years," says Holland. "Sometimes when I've worked with Herbie Hancock I would use the bass guitar and things, but I had been looking for a way to take my concept that I play on the acoustic bass and translate that onto the bass guitar. On this album I feel like I have started to be able to do that and really explore what the bass guitar has to give as an instrument, but at the same time still play the musical language that I have developed on the acoustic bass."

Though primarily known as an acoustic bassist, Holland is no stranger to the electric instrument.

"I was a bass guitarist first before I was an acoustic player, " he recalls. "I started playing bass guitar in a band when I was about thirteen and I played that until seventeen when I started working as an acoustic bassist, up in the Midlands area around Birmingham. Dances and weddings, you know, and then I came to London and I had a job in a Greek restaurant six nights a week playing music. Some of it was Greek music, or light jazz, just while people were eating their food."

While in London Holland took classes with James Merrett, a renowned teacher at the Guildhall School of Music who also taught Chris Lawrence and Barry Guy amongst other emerging bassists. "He was a classical player and we studied classical music with him. There were no jazz courses at that time," explains Holland.

By the age of seventeen, Holland saw his future with the acoustic bass. "I very rarely played bass guitar. I did a tour with Roy Orbison, I think when I was about nineteen or twenty, and I was playing bass guitar on that. And I would occasionally do a recording session or studio date of film music on bass guitar, but really I was not thinking about bass guitar."

Then 1968, just four years after arriving in London, Holland was spotted playing at Ronnie Scott's by Miles Davis.

The Miles Davis Years

"When I went to New York to play with Miles he knew me as an acoustic bassist and that's what I played in the band for over a year, maybe a year and a half," Holland estimates. "But you know, the music was transitioning and developing some new areas. I could see that the bass guitar was going to work better on some of the material we played. For quite a while I was playing bass guitar and acoustic bass. We'd play, I don't know, "So What?" then we'd play Bitches Brew—we were mixing the music up."

Davis' music was indeed transitioning, and Holland was part of several the trumpeter's seminal recordings, notably In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970). For most young musicians it would have been a dream gig, but Holland was already seeking to expand his horizons.

"For the last five months of the gig I was playing all electric and that was part of the reason I decided to leave the band because I didn't want to let go of the acoustic bass altogether."

The pull factor was perhaps as strong as the push. "There was this group that I was interested in playing in—this trio with Chick Corea and Barry Altschul and we met Anthony Braxton during that time. Chick and I were still with Miles, and we decided to put that group called Circle together and I left Miles' group to pursue that for a while."

Remembering Chick Corea

For a period of several years in the late '60s and early '70s with Davis and with Circle, Holland and Corea recorded some of the most avant-garde music of their respective careers. Holland remembers his former colleague, who passed away in February 2021.

"We were very close friends during that time in the late '60s, early '70s and we were exploring some quite adventurous music. He was a close friend and a close musical friend as well," says Holland of his former band mate and one-time neighbour.

"We were living in the same building. He had a loft that was one floor below me and we were visiting all the time, playing music there and then going on the road. We turned each other on to a lot of music. We also shared an interest in philosophy and different philosophical ideas. We had a very close relationship during that period and very fruitful musically."

Stretching Out

Starting in the early to mid-'80s, and for many years thereafter, Holland performed mainly with quintets, notching up a string of acclaimed albums with Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, Julian Priester and Marvin 'Smitty' Smith}}, then with Chris Potter, Robin Eubanks, Steve Nelson and Nate Smith. In the last decade or so, however, Holland's nose has followed a different scent, his output being characterized by its stylistic diversity.

Perhaps Hands (Dare2, 2010) with flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela marked a turning point. Then there was the duo recording with Kenny Barron, The Art of Conversation (Impulse! 2014), followed by Blue Maqams (ECM, 2017) with Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem and the trio outing Good Hope (Edition Records, 2019) with Chris Potter and Zakir Hussain.

"In the last few years, I've been changing my focus a little bit," Holland acknowledges. "I think I decided almost unconsciously, and I sort of realized it after it was happening, that I was reaching into a whole range of different approaches to the music. It's a little bit to do with the time of life I'm in as well. I am interested in doing a variety of things, working with new people and having new stimulations and so on, but this trio is high on my list of priorities," he stresses.

Diversity may be Holland's new vehicle, but in fact, it's nothing new. Holland's career, from the very beginning of his decades-long association with Manfred Eicher's ECM label, has been one adventure after another.

Bluegrass Days

Shortly after leaving Miles Davis' employ, Holland's first releases as a co-leader, A.R.C. with Chick Corea and Barry Altschul, Improvisations for Cello and Guitar with Derek Bailey and Music for Two Basses) with Barre Phillips—all three released on ECM in 1971—spoke volumes of his singular drive and vision.

Another, slightly more obscure recording that's well worth tracking down—and one that Holland describes as being "on my list of favourite projects"—is multi-instrumentalist/singer John Hartford's Morning Bugle (Warner Bros, 1972), which saw Holland venture into the bluegrass world.

"It was kind of a chance thing, Holland explains. "It was up in the Catskill area where I live now and there was a recording session that John Hartford was putting together with Norman Blake and he asked if I would like to be a part of it. It started a period where I had the opportunity to work with some great bluegrass players. Vassar Clements, the fiddle player, was another one."

Going through Holland's discography, in fact, is like digging through a crate of classic records and stumbling upon one treasure after another.


Given that Holland has lived in the USA for many years, the title of his new trio's record, Another Land, could have any number of meanings—a manifesto, a rallying cry, or perhaps a lament.

"I kind of like to pose the idea in the title that can mean different things to different people. I would prefer you came to your conclusion about what it meant. The first thing that comes to mind to me is another land in the sense of something newly discovered, a fresh start. A beginning in a way, but it could be mental, it could be internal, it could be physical, it could be musical, you know, a new land of music—a new continent discovered, in a way," Holland suggests.

"It's kind of how I see the music, you know, what does this piece of music mean? I think one of the beautiful things about art, in general, is that it provokes a personal experience. You look at a beautiful painting of some kind and each person will have different emotional responses to it. And the same with music. The audience becomes a participant in the event because they interpret it in their own way."

Audiences have been in very short supply since the Covid-19 pandemic.

A Challenging Year

"March last year I was doing a three-day residency at Ronnie Scott's with Kenny Barron and Jonathan Blake, and we were starting a tour. That vanished in front of our eyes. That was really the last live performance I've done. I've done streamed things but not to an audience and very few things with other people. It's been a difficult period because something that I feel is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the music is the communal experience, you know?"

"It's been an adjustment, " says Holland of this strange period, with typical understatement. "What it's done I think is just reaffirm my love of playing. You know, I've been travelling so much, and I was starting to think, 'Well, maybe I need to build a bit more space into my schedule and have a little bit more personal time that's not just about the music, for pursuing other things,' and then suddenly I'm in this space where it's forced on me. Yeah, be careful what you wish for, you know?" Holland laughs.

"The thing of touring, I don't like the travel part, it's not particularly pleasant these days but the performing is just so wonderful to experience. It's so much about functioning at your best level, where all your senses and focus are at work. It's sort of the high point of your being."

Picking up where he left off, Holland's first gig in sixteen months will again be with Barron and Blake at the Newport Jazz Festival [Sunday, August 1-ed]. The bassist is counting the days until Newport and a reconnection with live performance before an appreciative audience.

"Oh, I'm looking forward to it so much. I love the location, it's in a beautiful area that's right by the water. I'll be seeing a lot of friends there too, a lot of musicians that I haven't seen for quite a while so it's going to be a reunion and a celebration I think of the joy of playing music again and celebrating the audience and being able to be with people who want to hear the music."

A New Chapter With Edition Records

In 2005 Holland set up his own record label, the aptly named Dare 2, on which he has released eight titles, including 2005's Grammy-winning big band album Overtime. Another Land, however, is released on Dave Stapleton's Edition Records label. For Holland it was a no brainer, after what he describes as the "great experience" of working with Edition Records on Good Hope, the trio album with Zakir Hussain and Chris Potter.

"Dave Stapleton was really understanding of the new parameters of business, knowing how to really utilize the opportunities that are now available for record distribution and using social media and various other aspects of digital outreach," explains Holland. "So, when we had this album coming up we approached Dave Stapleton about it...I wanted to keep Dare2 Records alive and Dave said, 'Well, we can do a collaboration between Dare2 and Edition.' So, this is sort of a collaborative release."

For Holland, the deal with Edition Records takes away a lot of the heavy lifting. "The advantage for me is that it has taken a lot of the distribution and production responsibility—you know, the pressing of the album, the packaging and so on—away from me. It's quite a lot of work for each record and quite a lot of outlay as well, the expenses involved like hiring publicists in different territories," Holland explains.

"So far I am extremely happy with Edition. I love working with the company and we're planning to do future releases."

For now, Holland is focusing on his new trio and looking forward to a return to touring—his bread and butter since the mid-'60s. It has been an illustrious career, but Holland is grounded very much in the here and now.

Good Fortune

On Another Land, however, there is a track called "Passing Time," a handsome slower tune featuring one of Holland's killer bass ostinatos. When asked if the track perhaps provokes nostalgia or reflection on the sum of his storied career his response is typically modest.

"I don't look back very much. I tend to be pretty involved in what I'm doing now, with things coming up and where I want to go with things. When I do look back I'm feeling very fortunate for the chance to play with the people that I've played with. It's been a wonderful chance to learn about the music," Holland states.

"You know, playing this music is not just about the notes and the rhythms, it's about how you approach it and how you carry yourself and all kinds of things about the mental place you go when you play, how you start solo. All these things you learn by the contact and the association that you might be lucky enough to have with players with more experience than yourself," Holland continues.

"When I look back it goes back to the musicians here in London that I had a chance to play with back then, people like John Taylor and John Surman, Tubby Hayes...It was a very rich and fertile musical scene in London during the 1960s when I was here between '64 and '68. The whole thing has been an accumulative experience and one I feel so lucky about. And I'm so glad it has reached people and touched people and hopefully help them deal with modern times and the challenges that we all face."

Music is no panacea, but Holland is right on the money when he talks of it as a kind of pressure valve that we turn to when in need of release.

"I think music and art gives people a chance for some relief from the daily stress that sometimes we are under. It gives our imagination free reign and lets our feelings happen that we sometimes are not able to access. All this is such a wonderful thing, and I am so grateful for the fact that I was able to become a musician and have the chances that I've had.

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