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Dave Holland: Prime Time

Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland's bass

It’s December and the farms that surround Dave Holland’s Saugerties home in upstate New York are barren, but the beauty of the countryside is as obvious as the warmth of the bassist’s home, which still has its decorated Christmas tree and other signs of seasonal celebration. It is easy to see how the setting could nurture not only the Holland family, but also the music of one of the jazz world’s true contemporary heroes.

“We were driving back from a duet gig in Vermont with Collin Wolcott in 1972, and we saw a sign for Woodstock,” the bassist says in explaining his move to the area. “[My wife,] Claire, was pregnant with our son Jacob, and we had heard about a place that did natural childbirth in Woodstock and allowed fathers to be present for the delivery, things that were not so common at the time. So we just drove into Woodstock, sat in a cafe, and found a ranch house in a local paper. We moved back to New York in ’75 for three years, when the loft thing was happening, then decided to move back because we loved the area. One of the best moves we made was to come to this house, because it gave us room to bring up the family, and for me to do my work. I needed to go through New York and make the musical connections, but I don’t think I could have done what I have living in New York.”

What Holland has done is create a body of music, as a sideman at first and more frequently as a bandleader, that has defined the best in jazz over the past three decades. From the time he arrived in the U.S. from his native England to join Miles Davis in 1968, Holland has been at the center of things. In the ’70s he partnered with: Chick Corea and Anthony Braxton in Circle; Sam Rivers; the cooperative Gateway trio with John Abercrombie and Jack DeJohnette; and produced one of the decade’s supreme recorded statements, Conference of the Birds. By the ’80s, Holland had finally put a working quintet together, and it, too, was responsible for some of the best music of the period. At the same time, and during the years he set bandleading aside in the early ’90s, the bassist continued to share his skills with an imposing list of great players in a wide range of styles; and when he was ready to lead again, Holland assembled yet another stellar ensemble in 1997. This latest quintet, which includes trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonist Chris Potter, vibist Steve Nelson and drummer Billy Kilson, has just released its second CD, Prime Directive, which is sure to be one of the most celebrated albums of the year.

“I try to time recordings to coincide with significant moments for the band,” Holland explains. “Prime Directive was recorded in December [1998], and the band had grown a lot during the year since we made Points of View, our first album. We also had developed a lot of new material. We could have waited until a time closer to the scheduled release, but the band was on a roll. For me, it was more important to get that on record than to wait. I’m not really interested in just doing follow-up CDs, as you can see from my output. They come when the band is ready, and when we’ve had a chance to play our new material on gigs. Contrary to what’s often done these days, I prefer doing the record after we’ve played the music on gigs. We get a more in-depth reading of the pieces. I like to capture them in midstream, when the development is still going on.”

While Points of View was strong enough to earn a Grammy nomination, Prime Directive finds Holland’s quintet in a more evolved state. The music has taken on a layered complexity without sacrificing its strong melodic content. “The significant change I see is that the compositions are more integrated into the improvisations, and into the way we play,” Holland says. “The last album was written before the band had performed, just from ideas in my head of how these people would sound. When another year-plus of playing went by, I realized the growth and incorporated it into the compositions. The music’s a little more in-your-face and extroverted, and the band is really feeling its strength now.”

Part of that strength is a level of interaction, in both the front line and rhythm section, that has become indicative of Holland’s music. At several points in the album, Eubanks and Potter converse with astounding unity of purpose. “I love the trombone,” Holland explains. “It’s a unique instrument with a wonderful tone quality and range of expression-especially in the hands of Robin, who even brought the plunger in on one piece for the new album. And Robin and Chris have something together, which is one thing I love about this band. While each player is strong individually, they are all willing to serve the group all of the time.”

There is a similar chemistry emanating from Kilson and Nelson, with their hookup recalling previous rarefied partnerships that the bassist has enjoyed with drummers Jack DeJohnette, Barry Altschul and Smitty Smith. “For me, the drummer is the heart of the band, controlling how the dynamics move and the drama of the music,” Holland confirms. “Billy had a connection with me right from the first. It’s a willingness to be supportive or take the lead, and it’s a fundamental understanding of where the rhythm section is going and how it interacts with the soloist. One thing I enjoy as a bass player is the dialogue you can develop between soloists and rhythm section. But you need a particular type of drummer who wants to do that, who doesn’t just want to get up in front but is willing to get inside the music.

“Each generation has a different set of influences, and the great thing about the generational change is that the younger players bring a different sensibility to other musics that they’ve grown up with. The definition of swing, for instance, is redefined-often by the drummer or the rhythm section. Billy has been active in a lot of different things, from Ahmad Jamal’s group to Bob James’ group. He has a range of grooves and feels that keeps the music moving. That sense of development within a piece is important to me. Pieces don’t have to stay in the same groove the whole time.”

The presence of vibraphonist Nelson indicates a significant change in Holland’s music over the past decade. “I grew up at a time when there were a lot of interesting developments happening in the music,” he says. “I was interested in all of them, and still am. I went through stages when I got much more narrow, in terms of what I felt was relevant; but as I get older, I’m looking to bring all of those aspects together.

“Coming out of the ’70s, I was still concerned mostly with open form. I had spent a large portion of the late ’70s playing with Sam Rivers, and I really enjoyed the freedom and openness of just horn, bass and drum. For a long time I kept the sound in that range, as I did with my earlier quintet through ’87. But during that period I also started to understand just how important closed-form music still was. I realized that certain concepts have to be presented within a song form, and the example that struck me was ‘Giant Steps.’ That’s a landmark composition, which all musicians have to come to grips with; but had Coltrane not written it, the rest of us would have never dealt with it. We could improvise for a hundred years and never improvise ‘Giant Steps.’ So I saw that closed form would provide the opportunity to develop musical ideas that we would never stumble upon otherwise.

“Then I saw that a harmonic instrument would help to state the harmonic schemes, which are not as clear to the listener. I had a significant experience when I went to an Italian music school with Smitty and Steve Coleman. We played a piece for the students, and they didn’t know if it was open or closed form. This was a piece with a clear harmonic structure; it even landed on an A minor chord for 10 bars. I was stunned. These were musicians, and if they couldn’t hear the stuff that was going on, what chance would the average listener have? That’s when I decided that a chording instrument would provide a greater sense of where things were going.

“Of course, the player and how they use the instrument is the primary factor. I can imagine a vibes player that would fill every space up, but Steve Nelson is a great player with a great sense of moment, of when to play the note or the chord. He reminds me of Duke Ellington, who might play only three chords over an entire chorus, but they come at the great moments. I also love it that the vibes are a member of the percussion family. The balafon and the African mallet tradition have significance for how Steve uses the instrument rhythmically as well as harmonically. Things that happen between him and Billy are fascinating on that level. ‘Jugglers Parade’ on the new album has to do with exploring that hookup.”

The quintet is obviously Holland’s top priority, one that he sustains with the help of his daughter, Louise, who now serves as his manager. “At this point in my life, I feel extremely fortunate to have a band that is working, playing original music and sustaining itself over time. This is the ultimate musical situation for me-to be part of a group that plays the music we choose to play and feel is relevant. Louise is planning things for 2001 now, which is the way it has to be done. Month-long tours have to be planned a year ahead. I’ve always enjoyed doing other projects, but for now I’ve limited them, with only two or three others taking any touring time. Everybody is strongly committed to the quintet, and we are all doing what we can to make the band work.”

This common purpose explains the title of the new CD. “The concept of ‘prime directive’ came up from Claire and I talking about not wanting to be involved in any more projects with problems, over individuals or situations,” Holland explains. “The premise of playing is to enjoy it, which is our prime directive. If we’re not enjoying it, we should move on. I love this group because there is that sharing going on. I love to look over and see Robin with a big smile on his face, listening to Chris-and then to hear him come in after Chris with an ‘Okay, take this!’ attitude, in the most positive sense. We encourage each other, which pushes the band creatively.”

While Holland is justifiably proud of the quintet, it is only the latest station of a musical odyssey that began in Wolverhampton, England, where Holland was born in 1946. “When I was 13 I was going to a youth club where 10 or 12 guitar players got together to exchange songs and chords,” he recalls. “When a few of us decided to put a band together and play skiffle, or whatever else was popular in ’59, we had three guitars, a drummer and a singer. After rehearsing for a week or two, we decided we needed a bass and I volunteered.

“My mother helped me out by buying me a bass guitar, and I realized as soon as I started playing it that bass had caught my ear in a number of ways. We had a 78 at home by an English dance band called the John Loss Orchestra, a cover version of ‘In the Mood,’ with a bass feature on the B side. My grandfather was fascinated by it, and used to sit me down to listen to it when I was a kid. Then there were things like ‘Fever’ by Peggy Lee.

“I left school at 15, and by then I was gigging and listening to different records. When I saw that Ray Brown had won a magazine poll, I went to the store and got two Oscar Peterson records, Affinity and Night Train, and two Leroy Vinnegar records, Leroy Walks! and Leroy Walks Again. Those four records were the basis for my learning the acoustic bass, those and getting together and playing with other people.

“I started playing jazz at that point, and going to jazz clubs. Then, when I was 17, I took a summer season with a dance band, and that’s when I started playing acoustic bass exclusively. When I moved to London to study music at the Guildhall School, I started going to rehearsal bands and jam sessions, and it just kind of grew. I never thought about becoming a jazz musician. I planned on becoming a studio musician, which seemed within reach. There was a crucial point in ’66, when I went away to play an all-Bartok program. Over three weeks we played every Bartok orchestral piece, and I returned in crisis because the experience had been so fantastic. I wasn’t sure I could find music to play that was as important, but decided that, while I might not be able to create on that level, at least it would be my music.

“Right after that, I got my first gig at Ronnie Scott’s with a wonderful pianist named Pat Smythe. Through that gig, I got to play with Coleman Hawkins and Joe Henderson. Even when you were in the intermission band it wasn’t a bad gig, because people like Max Roach, Bill Evans and Archie Shepp were bringing their bands in for weeks at a time. It was one of many examples of how, once you make a commitment, you get a response from the universe. I was playing with everybody then-Surman, John Stevens, Chris McGregor’s South African band-plus my full-time Guildhall program. I had the bass in my hands 18 hours a day, and by ’67 I was totally caught up in the music.”

Enter Miles Davis. “In 1968, when I was finishing up at the Guildhall School, I had already made up my mind to go to New York,” Holland continues. “I was leaving the school in July, and planned to buy my ticket in September or October; but Miles heard me playing at Ronnie Scott’s in July, so by August 4 I was in New York playing with him.”

Holland was present during one of the critical periods in the trumpeter’s history, and helped move the music into its electric phase. “I joined the band as an acoustic bass player, and when I joined we were playing the whole history of Miles’ music, from ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘Stella by Starlight’ to more recent things like ‘Nefertiti.’ Being Miles, he was always bringing in new things, and we recorded my tracks from Filles de Kilimanjaro a month after I joined. We did In a Silent Way next, then Bitches Brew, and I was still playing acoustic bass; but I could see the music changing, and volunteered to start playing some songs on electric bass. The acoustic bass just didn’t hold up in the context of these new pieces.”

It was a change that ultimately led Holland to leave the Davis band in 1971. “There was some conflict in me,” he admits. “When I left London, my impetus musically was coming out of records by Cecil Taylor, Coltrane and Ornette as well as Miles. I was very much into open form playing, and wanted to bring that experience into Miles’ band. I took a lot of liberties in the first year, opening up the music by leaving the form of the tune and then coming back into it. We had some interesting discussions at Miles’ house about this. He would listen to records that I liked and we’d talk about them. I was exploring this non-functional role for the bass, which reached some sort of peak; then Miles told me one night, ‘Dave, don’t forget that you are a bass player.’

“That was a good reality check for me. Still, and I know this sounds conceited, I thought that I had a vision of where I wanted the band to go, stretching and opening up, when Miles was bringing the band more and more into these vamps and grooves. You can hear this great tension on some of the records, where we go from grooves to open forms. It was interesting, but there were frustrations on my part, and they led me to leave the band and explore more open forms in Circle.

“It was very rewarding, though, to watch how Miles put the music together, how he’d dissect a song that Joe Zawinul or someone else had brought in until just one element was left. Miles took everything as raw material that could be molded.”

For the next decade, Holland was content to function as one component of a unit. “I had no notion of leading my own band” in the ’70s, he confesses. “I just wanted to be a better bass player, and to be part of a group. Because the important musical things that have happened to me took place when I was part of a group. Even after Conference of the Birds, I had no ambition to be a bandleader. My ideal at the time was the cooperative band. It took me a long time to realize that the problem with most cooperative bands is that the musicians don’t cooperate with each other. It was only after trying it a few times that I realized how things worked better with somebody’s hand on the tiller. The lighter touch the better, which is why Miles was so great.

“But you stand out there exposed as a leader, and there’s always this doubt in the back of your mind. ‘Is it just me, tripping on this music? Does it make any sense to anybody else?’ You have to get over that, to allow your creative ideas to have voice without too much editing.”

It took a life-threatening illness in 1980 to make Holland realize that he was ready to assume command. “I left Sam Rivers in 1980 with the intention of starting a band,” he recalls, “but right after that I got sick and was recuperating for almost an entire year. The problem was endocarditis, which is an infection of one of the heart valves. It was resolved with an operation where the surgeons intended to replace the valve, then during the operation found that they could repair it. You come out of a critical situation like that with a new appreciation of what your values are. That was a major motivator in saying ‘I don’t care if the time’s right, I am going to put a band together.’ And the time certainly wasn’t right, because we were flat broke with two young kids. But Claire agreed that starting a quintet was what needed to be done.”

“We sold everything, except the house and the bass,” Claire adds. “And the only reason we survived was because musicians from all over the world did benefits for Dave. It was overwhelming.”

“It was stunning to get this feedback, from musicians and fans who obviously cared about what was happening with me,” the bassist concurs. “That also helped me decide to make the time that I had left count. Still, starting a quintet where one guy lived in London [Kenny Wheeler], one lived in Seattle [Julian Priester], one in Atlanta [Steve Ellington, later replaced by Smitty Smith] and two in New York [Holland and Steve Coleman] made even getting people to the gig somewhat unrealistic. We struggled, calling people on the phone, putting little tours together in the States and Europe, and over a period of five years we developed the band. By 1987 we were working fairly steadily. But it depleted all of our resources, and I was feeling ready for a musical change.”

Even in the periods when he has decided to put leadership aside, Holland has not wanted for challenging playing environments. A few remain ongoing endeavors. “I’m getting ready to do a tour in March with Anouar Brahem and John Surman,” he says of the trio where he shares with the Tunisian oud master and one of his oldest British associates. “Anouar has been a real joy to play with. He’s deeply rooted in the Arabic tradition, but he’s had a lot of other musical experiences, and his compassion, humility and grace come through in his playing. The third piece on the new album, ‘Make Believe,’ is based on a rhythmic structure that I learned from Anouar. There was a large gap in my playing with John Surman, but in ’67 and ’68 we had a trio that was very close to the open situation I had with Sam Rivers. John and I discovered A Love Supreme together. The trio with Anouar was a nice chance to renew our friendship. I also enjoy the acoustical environment we play in. It’s very low-key, which gives me a chance to play my instrument in other ways.”

Holland remains involved with other old friends, including one from his student days in London. “It seems that something comes up with Kenny Wheeler every year or so. I’m going to England in about a week to play three concerts with Kenny. And although the Gateway trio hasn’t played in a couple of years, I see it on the horizon that John, Jack and I will be getting back together. And I’ve also done a bit of duet work with Jim Hall-we’re doing four European concerts in February.”

Most of these collaborations have been documented on ECM, which has been Holland’s recording base since 1971. “It’s been a unique record label in the history of the business,” he says. “It has charted its own course through some very tricky territory in order to be an international label that is still independent. It also still keeps its entire catalogue available, which has been a big part of my relationship with ECM. Manfred is certainly a producer who has ideas-the project with Anouar and John and the Gateway trio were initiated by Manfred-but he never infringes on what I want to do. If you have your own clear idea of what you want to do, that’s what happens. And on the business and ethical side, things have always been correct.”

Moving to a larger label has held little interest for the bassist. “There are some advantages to having the huge machinery of a large label behind you, because most of what it’s about is people noticing you,” he admits. “But there are prices to be paid, and one is less independence. After looking at those artistic costs, I concluded that ECM was a very good home for me. Perhaps the credibility of the band took longer to establish, but probably not. The machinery, when it’s turned on, can be very effective; but for me the question is, What is it selling? Who cares if an album gets across if it contains music that you didn’t want to play in the first place. It just means that you have to keep playing it for the rest of your life.

“I prefer our slow, steady growth, with a growing number of fans who like our music. And we are noticing an increasing number of young people in our audiences, early twenties and late teens. That’s a positive sign that the music is reaching across generations.”

As for the future, Holland explains that “We’re still deep in the involvement with the band, and are projecting it for the foreseeable future. While I like to do other things, I also like to have a central thing going on. Around the quintet I’ll do other things like a British Arts Council tour with an octet, which will add Kenny Wheeler, Antonio Hart and a fifth horn to the quintet. I’ve written music for a 12-piece group that I hope to present soon, and I’m planning another solo tour. The composer Mark-Anthony Turner is also writing a piece for me to perform in 2001 with a Dutch chamber orchestra, and it’s gotten me interested in doing a project that would include a couple of other chamber pieces. I spoke to Kenny Wheeler about writing something, and he’s interested. So is Billy Childs, whose writing I like a lot, and I might try putting something on paper myself. This is going to be a challenge for me, but as a player you need those different kind of challenges.

One thing Holland does not plan to do is wax nostalgic, despite the current demand for reunions. “It’s difficult to recreate a moment in time,” he says of his earlier experiences. “Miles understood that. We have offers to put old groups together, and it really isn’t that interesting to me, because it would only diminish the memory of what happened. Putting [the] Conference of the Birds [band] back together, for instance, just wouldn’t work. We’ve all gone through 30 years of additional experiences, and the music we played then got its strength from how we felt at that time. It only works if the situation has continued to grow, like the Gateway trio. We were all interested in continuing that band because John, Jack and I didn’t want to just play what we played in the ’70s. We created new music to show where we are now, rather than just taking a sentimental journey.”


“The instrument I use the most is a smaIl flat back 3/4 French bass. I use Thomastik Spirocore strings, orchestral tuning. I use an AKG 406c condenser microphone mounted on the inside of the tailpiece so that the capsule is positioned between the feet about 1 inch from the front of the bass, and this goes directly to the house and monitor system. My Underwood pickup goes through a Retrospec tube D.I. that sends one line to the monitors and the house, and one line to my Gallien Krueger MB150E. This has its own 12″ speaker and drives a Hartke 410 cabinet.”

Listening Pleasures

“On Christmas day, I was playing Stevie Wonder and Louise was playing Michael Jackson. Otherwise, lately I’ve listened to Kenny Wheeler’s brass project [A Long Time Ago], some Cachao and some Delius, who I decided to check out for the first time in several years. And there is also some Ellington moving through my CD player. I keep coming back to a couple of the suites, The Far East Suite and The New Orleans Suite, and I like The Unknown Session a lot.”

Originally Published