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.