An Interview With Dave Holland - Looking Back

In Conversation with H. Allen Williams

Legendary bassist Dave Holland draws upon positive energy and Dares2 release a follow- up album to his Grammy award winning, "What Goes Around," with his latest big band release "Overtime." Dave openly talks with H. Allen Williams about his upcoming release, Dare2 Records, his thoughts on music and the future.

H. Allen Williams: Discuss the thought process and events that lead you to premier a 13-piece ensemble at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2000, when at the time your quintet was already thriving.

Dave Holland: Well, I’ve appeared at the Montreal Jazz Festival a number of times over the years and my manager was in discussion with them about the idea of me doing a residency there. Every year they invite two artists to do a four concert series, one each week of the two week festival, and I was asked to do it We were putting together a plan for the four concerts and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to present the big band for the first time. It had been an idea of mine to write for the large group, I had done a few sketches for big band and used them on a couple of concerts, but this was the first full scale thing I had approached. I spent a few months before the festival preparing the music and we presented it at the end of June 2000 as one of the four concerts.

H. Allen Williams Why did you choose to arrange and record the same material for the big band that you had previously recorded with your smaller ensembles?

Dave Holland: Partly because they were from some of the sketches I had previously done for big band, so it was a good start for me. I had already given some thought to how I would expand the pieces for the band, and it also gave me a chance to use material that I was really familiar with.

H. Allen Williams: Do you view the big band as an expanded quintet?

Dave Holland: I wanted it be an extension of the concept of the quintet. The key point, of course, was to have the five members of the quintet imbedded in the big band, and that gave us a very clear start to the group. The quintet had already been playing together for a couple of years, so the direction the band was going in was easily communicated and translated quickly in to the big band context.

H. Allen Williams : In January, 2001 when you entered the studio to record "What Goes Around," was it primarily to document the big bands’ sound at the time, or could you tell by the success while touring that a CD needed to be released to keep the positive momentum going?

Dave Holland: It was to document the big band. After the successful concert in Montreal, and I was happy with the result, I wanted to document it and put it out on a record. We did a few dates at Birdland in New York with the big band prior to the recording date and then went into the studio and recorded the music.

H. Allen Williams: Resulting in a great success, because that album won you a Grammy! Right?

Dave Holland: It did! I was very happy with how it was received, both with the press and in the public. It was a bit of a surprise for me. I had actually shied away from writing for big band for a number of years. Taking on that challenge was a little bit overwhelming for me as a writer. I think partly because I have so many heroes that had done such wonderful work. Particularly Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s work, but also Thad Jones, Kenny Wheeler, and of course Gil Evans. I wasn’t sure what I could add to the genre and I think for that reason, I put off writing for the big band for a long time. After finally deciding to write for the big band, it was very gratifying to have people receive my works so well.

H. Allen Williams: You have chosen a new challenge; please tell us about your new label Dare2 records.

Dave Holland: Dare2 has actually been an idea that we’ve been postulating for a number of years. In fact, a radio interviewer wrote me an e-mail just a month ago telling me that he had discovered an interview from 1972 where I was saying that at some point I wanted to start my own record label. So it was an idea that I had in mind for quite a long time. I’ve had a long relationship with ECM and over the thirty-plus years. I have been able to document all my music. Of course, all that music is owned by ECM. One of the purposes of the Dare2 Records is to retain ownership of the material and use the company as a licensing opportunity for us to license to various distributors. Universal Music Jazz France picked us up for distribution outside of the states and with Sunnyside Records for distribution here in the states.

H. Allen Williams: The debut of your new label, Dare2 Records, will be on February 22, 2005 with the release of the big band’s second album, "Overtime."

Dave Holland: We decided it was a perfect opportunity to start the label with "Overtime," the follow-up album to the Grammy winning album, "What Goes Around."

H. Allen Williams: Can we expect to see other artist on the label in the future?

Dave Holland: That will be a decision we will make further down the line. I would like to really establish the label with my own works and see where that leads us. The record industry is changing dramatically with the Internet. Also, for the past year we have been recording all of our live performances and I do see down the road Dare2 being an opportunity to release some of that live material, either through the Internet or distribution. Ideally, we would like to take advantage of all types of distribution. For example, the album has been available on i-tunes for two weeks now.

H. Allen Williams: Let us talk about the material on the new CD. You composed and arranged six out of the seven pieces, including the four-part "The Monterey Suite." Tell us about "The Monterey Suite;" how and why it was commissioned and your thoughts and emotions while composing it.

Dave Holland: This was a result of the Montreal debut of the big band and all of the ripples that went out from that one performance. One of those ripples reached as far as Monterey. The festival asked me in early 2001 if I would be interested in writing a suite. I agreed and we performed the piece at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the middle of September, just after 9/11. I still had the last part of the suite to write when 9/11 happened. I couldn’t compose as a result of being stunned by the horrific event. Finally, I locked myself in my music room and completed "Happy Jammy." As it turned out, the suite and our performance of it at Monterey was such a positive assertion of the human spirit overcoming adversity.

H. Allen Williams: What made you decide to rearrange "Ario," which was originally heard on the quintet’s "Point of View" album for the big band?

Dave Holland: When adding pieces to the quintet or big band, I am always thinking about what will compliment what is already there and give a new vehicle for improvisation. "Ario" has a very specific mood to it and it translated very well into the big band setting.

H. Allen Williams: The orchestration of "Ario" reminds me of Gil Evans with the flute and vibes above going in and out of 2nds and 3rds, with the muted trumpets and the rhythmic trombone voicings.

Dave Holland: As I said earlier, I have a number of heroes in music and I have tried to learn something in the process of listening to the greats. For sure there are hints of Gil Evans and Duke Ellington. I am very happy for the comparison to myself and such a great composer and arranger as Gil.

H. Allen Williams: I also hear some classical influences, such as Bartok and certainly Stravinsky, especially when Stravinsky was using rhythmic cell as motivic material.

Dave Holland: That definitely has been an influence on the way I think about writing music developing little motivic ideas and playing them off each other and against other rhythmic cells. That is also a part of Ellington and Strayhorn’s music. I played in Sam Rivers’s big band in the 70’s, and Sam had some composing approaches that utilized similar techniques. All of that has certainly become apart of the language that I use as a writer.

H. Allen Williams: I heard that Sam would say, "Everything is in 4/4 and in the key of C."

Dave Holland: Well that’s the way he wrote it. He wrote everything in 4/4, but it certainly did not sound that way because he would have cycles of seven, five and nine. He just wrote it all out in 4/4 and no sharps or flats in the key signature. He just wrote in the accidentals as they needed to be written in.

H. Allen Williams: Dave, one of the many intriguing aspects of your compositional style is the use of grooves.

Dave Holland: The main thing is, does it feel good? Does it have rhythmic propulsion and often a kind of dance feel? The rhythmic language is something I have been developing. Working with other time signatures, other than the usual 4/4 and 3/4, gives us a rhythmic vehicle to improvise on. That is a key point to all the music I write, the purpose is to create settings for improvisation. Even in the big band, where there is a lot of extended composition, I am still always thinking about the pieces as vehicles for improvisation that allows different individuals, different personalities and different styles of players to thrive in.

H. Allen Williams: Can you walk us through your compositional process on "Last Minute Man" and how it all came together?

Dave Holland: I had a rhythmic idea going through my head and I started to think about a composition that would contain that feeling. I let one thing lead to another, I will try something, like it, and then move on. I developed the key theme and played it with the quintet first. When I understood where the piece could go, I started orchestrating it and adding various sections. Again, it was a complimentary piece to the big band book that provided us a different vehicle for improvisation.

H. Allen Williams: How do you balance composing and arranging with allowing flexibility and freedom for each individual player to create within the context of a piece?

Dave Holland: With the small group, I am looking for a minimum amount of material which will create a clear direction for the music to go in, with a lot of gaps to be filled in by the improviser. With the large group, there is an opportunity to use a wider range of orchestral colors and compositional settings. I try to consider the personality of the improviser that I am going to be using on the piece, and what settings would suit their style of playing to allow them to explore the whole range of their creative ideas.

H. Allen Williams: "Overtime" seems to feature all the personnel equally. Was that your goal when composing the music?

Dave Holland: That was the whole premise of the big band to start with. I could have used very skilled section players and then only featured the quintet. However, I liked the idea of the bigger community of musicians and the wider range of personalities that could be drawn upon to present their approach to improvising. When putting the band together, I looked for players that were strong section players that could stand up and make a strong statement individually.

H. Allen Williams: The ensemble really sounds tight and cohesive. What are some of the conscience decisions the band as a whole made, and you as a leader made, to create such a unified ensemble sound?

Dave Holland: The first big decision was for everybody to want to do it. A huge amount of time and effort went into putting the music together. Everyone had to dig real deep and gave it their very best. One of the differences between "Overtime" and "What Goes Around," is that prior to going into the studio for "Overtime," the band had extensively toured together. We really had a chance to live with the music and decide how to interpret it while building strong interactions within the group.

H. Allen Williams: You have basically had the same players for five years. That is a real testament to the commitment level and mutual respect that everyone must have for each other and for you as a leader. What do you contribute this success to?

Dave Holland: Everybody looks forward to seeing each other and working together. It is all a part of a big communal spirit. The key thing for me, is the very positive energy that surrounds the whole project. I think as a musician, you really look for situations where you can come to the table with all of your creative resources and find a place for them to be in a situation where people are supportive and encouraging to one another. Everyone take pleasure, not only in their own successes and contributions, but in the successes and contributions of all the other players and the group as whole.

H. Allen Williams: When looking through the booklet in the CD jewel case, I could not help but notice all the smiles on the players’ faces. Is having fun still the prime directive?

Dave Holland: Yeah! Having fun. The positive energy is an important part of this music. It’s not that we are playing happy, happy music all the time, but the power of positive energy and what it can produce is definitely a big part of this project.

H. Allen Williams: How would you describe your leadership style?

Dave Holland: I try to lead and be led by what I hear around me. In other words, I try to keep my ears open to what people are doing in the band and give space for that to happen, and at the same time, present ideas as to where the music can go.

H. Allen Williams: How did it come to pass that Robin Eubanks contributed the composition "Mental Images" on the new CD?

Dave Holland: Well, going back to the previous question about leadership style, I always try and make room for all the creative aspects of the people in the group. When I have a composer and arranger as talented as Robin in the group, it would be foolish for me not to give him the opportunity to write for the big band. We compliment each other in our writing and playing styles, and I think he brought a lot to the band by writing this composition.

H. Allen Williams: How would you describe the music on "Overtime" to someone that has never heard your music before?

Dave Holland: The music is about the human condition and the celebration of different feelings that make up that human condition. The music invites you into it through the rhythmic and melodic statements that are contained in it, while still offering the listener the chance to repeatedly go back to the record and find new things to discover. I want the listener to experience; as I change, my experience of the music changes.

H. Allen Williams: Can you briefly describe how you want your music to influence people?

Dave Holland: I would like it to make them feel better about themselves and life in general. To give them a little more faith in the human spirit and what people can do when they really bring their positive energy together.

H. Allen Williams: Do you believe there is a connection between music and spirituality?

Dave Holland: I believe there is a connection between everything and spirituality if you look for it.

H. Allen Williams: What will be some of the techniques or ideas that you will use to reach the next generation with your music?

Dave Holland: I can’t say I use techniques in a conscience way. I enjoy listening to the developments in music of all styles. I draw upon world music, contemporary pop music, jazz, hip-hop, and classical. I think the young people like the free wheeling spirit that goes along with my music and the group’s interaction and the communication between the musicians.

H. Allen Williams: What is next for Dave Holland?

Dave Holland: We are going to be touring extensively with both the big band and the quintet. We will be going to South Africa with the quintet in March, which is always exciting for me to go some place I have never been before, and bring our music there. We have a quintet recording that will be done this year, which will be coming out next year. There is also a duo project that I am working on with a tabla player. We will be presenting that in Paris this March.

Be sure to check out daveholland.com for more information on tour dates and his other projects. A catalogue of Dave Holland’s music may be obtained by writing to: Lojac Music, P.O. Box 180, Mt. Marion, NY 12456, USA

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H. Allen Williams