Somewhere in New York State’s Hudson Valley, about 3,300 miles away from his birthplace in the English industrial city of Wolverhampton, wondrous sounds are issuing forth from the home of bassist, composer and bandleader Dave Holland. The most prominent Wulfrunian on the planet as well as England’s most famous jazz export, Holland takes a break from composing and arranging new material to chat with JazzTimes via phone. His workroom, which overlooks his wife Clare’s backyard garden, has been Holland’s fortress of solitude since the mid-’80s.
It’s where he meticulously inputs data into a Mac computer, playing trial-and-error with different horn voicings while shifting around intricate counterpoint lines with the click of a mouse. Eventually these experiments will emerge into fully realized compositions for one of his many ongoing projects. The seeds of his Grammy-winning big-band recordings, 2002’s What Goes Around and 2005’s Overtime, took root here. It’s also where his new octet project, Pathways (Dare2), had its beginnings.
“It’s not unusual now to compose on the computer, because it’s a valuable tool,” says Holland, who turns 64 on Oct. 1. “I’ve been using it myself since the early ’80s. I had a Commodore 68 back in 1985 or so, got my first Mac in 1987 and I’ve been using Macs ever since.”
With a desktop Mac up in his workroom and a Mac laptop loaded with the same music-copying program (Finale) and sequencing program (Logic) he has at home, Holland is always ready to document his ideas, whenever and wherever they may hit. Whether in New York or in some hotel on the road, he can easily mock up the individual components of his quintet, sextet, octet or big band using a digital keyboard, sequencer and a couple of other modules. For him, it’s far more effective than the old-school method of score paper and pencil.
“I’m a writer that likes to hear back what I’m writing,” he says. “Some writers can just write it on the paper and that works for them. They can hear everything in their head without hearing the feedback from a keyboard or something. But I like to have that, and it helps me in my writing. I have limited keyboard skills so the sequencer allows me to program things that I couldn’t possibly play on the piano on my own. And the counterpoint stuff, of course, when I write it I can hear it back right then and make decisions about if I want to change things or not. It’s all become part of the compositional process for me.”
That process has led to brilliant and exhilarating compositions, two of which appeared last year on Live at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival (MJF) by the Monterey Quartet, a supergroup featuring Holland, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Eric Harland. (That band, with Jason Moran on piano instead of Rubalcaba, performed in 2009 as the cooperative Overtone Quartet.) Even more of Holland’s superb compositional work appears on Pathways.
Essentially his working quintet of Potter, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks and drummer Nate Smith augmented by three members of his big band-baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, trumpeter Alex (Sasha) Sipiagin and alto saxophonist Antonio Hart-the Dave Holland Octet is an agile outfit that has the attributes of both small group and large ensemble.
“Sound-wise it represents a grouping I always loved that Ellington sometimes worked with-smaller ensembles with three reed instruments and two brass instruments,” says Holland. “Sometimes it would be added to or taken away from, but the basic idea was a five-horn frontline. With that grouping you have a big variety of combinations of instrumental sounds. You can get the effect of a big band but also have the intimacy of small group things, so it gives you a big range of compositional approaches that you can use. So that’s one of the reasons why I took it on as a musical project, to explore that sound. And, of course, to enlarge the quintet and to give the quintet another setting within which to function.”
Over the course of being a bandleader-he formed his first working group, a quintet, in 1983-Holland has consistently featured strong individual players and improvisers in his groups. His latest octet is no exception. “That’s always been a thing for me,” says Holland, “to find and to choose musicians who’ve really got their own voice but at the same time have this ability to really work as part of a musical community and work together, and these gentlemen in the octet are great at that. For me, it’s really a balance between strong individual voices and a group sound. And I’m very sure we’ve accomplished that with the band. All the musicians are ones that I’ve been involved with for some time, and we’ve been developing this music in various formats.”
The rest of this article appears in the April 2010 issue of JazzTimes