In honor of the 65th birthday of Dave Holland, the master bassist and composer, I’m posting a pair of features—one for Jazziz, from 2002; the other for DownBeat from 2005 in recognition of his victory in the DB Critics Poll—and the transcript of an interview we did at WKCR in 2008 that appeared on the now-defunct http://www.jazz.com ‘zine. This was the last of several live encounters we had WKCR; the first transpired in 1994, when we had an extensive on-air conversation.
“Nine times out of 10 when bass players subbed for Ron Carter in Miles’ band,” Herbie Hancock recalls, “Tony Williams would play really loud to cover them up, so they wouldn’t interfere with what the band was doing. And we would know in the first bars whether they should be covered up or not! But we didn’t cover up Dave Holland. His instincts were adequate and it sounded cool. ‘OK, he’s cool.’ That’s what it was.”
It was the end of the long, hot summer of 1968, and the Miles Davis Quintet was beginning a three-week engagement opposite Max Roach at Count Basie’s in Harlem. Holland, a 21-year-old Englishman with blond hair that fell over his shoulders, had flown to New York from London the previous afternoon, brought his bags to Jack DeJohnette’s apartment, and visited Herbie Hancock to review a few tunes. “I turned up at the club the next night and started,” he recalls. “I didn’t talk to anybody; I was just waiting to see what would happen. The next thing I know, Tony Williams is sitting behind the drums, so I get up and take my bass, and still nobody said anything. And Miles goes up to the mike and starts playing the first tune. It was ‘Agitation,’ which I’d heard on record — really just a trumpet line. And then the band comes in with a fast tempo, and we’re gone.”
Thus, the master bassist launched the still ongoing American phase of one of the most distinguished careers in late-20th-century jazz — one marked by inspired musicianship across a 360-degree range of styles. A high-visibility form-buster at the cusp of the ’70s with Miles’ late-acoustic and early-electric bands, Holland bolted when Miles started moving from abstraction to funk. During the remainder of the decade, he navigated uncharted terrain with fluid structuralists Chick Corea and Anthony Braxton and improvised from the tabula rasa with Sam Rivers. He developed a singular language for solo bass and cello. In Gateway, an open-ended trio with John Abercrombie and DeJohnette, he dissected rock, funk, and world-music grooves. And he demonstrated his bona fides in the jazz tradition as a valued sideman in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and in groups led by such iconic tonal personalities as Stan Getz, Betty Carter, and Thelonious Monk.
Along the way, Holland created the lyric masterpiece, Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1972), conjuring a set of tunes so strong that even the ferocious gusts of Braxton and Rivers couldn’t fracture their melodic essence. Still, Holland eschewed leader ambitions until 1980, when he fell seriously ill with endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. He recovered, took stock, and decided never again to neglect inner imperatives. Within a few years, he’d joined forces with M-BASE rhythmetricians Steve Coleman, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Robin Eubanks, and with them made a series of records containing some of most compelling speculative music of the ’80s. By 1994, Holland — influenced by a decade of metric exploration and extensive “inside” playing with Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock’s trio — was beginning to look for, in his words, “a harmonic context” within which to frame his personal vision of music. As he told me that year in his precise, meticulous manner, “I’m increasingly involved in creating closed-form music with an open-form sound, creating rhythmic disciplines, writing structures which create possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily stumble across in open-form playing.”
By 1998, Holland’s quintet comprised Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, saxophonist Chris Potter, and drummer Billy Kilson — each a virtuoso improviser of formidable skill. All contributed pieces to Prime Directive (ECM, 1999) and Not For Nothin’ (ECM, 2001), albums that document a unit supremely in balance. Never sublimating their voices, they play with an attitude of openness and ensemble community. These albums are filled with episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, loads of polyphony, call-and-response, background riffs, and a global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles. Propelled and knit together by the leader’s relentless grooves, singing sound, and harmonic acuity, they stand as meaningful signposts of what contemporary jazz can be.
“I combine simple and complex elements,” Holland says. “The music has inner layers that make it interesting to play repeatedly over a period of time. I try to integrate the soloist and rhythm section. I write the counterpoint into the compositions, but it continues on seamlessly when we move into ensemble improvisation.
“The tonal density of keyboard often is not what I’m looking for when I structure music. I’m trying to structure it with air. When I write a large chord with a big span, I want there to be space inside it so that it resonates in an open, transparent way. In the early days I didn’t want to use a chordal instrument; I was writing for open form along the Ornette Coleman model of having a very distinctive melodic line, sometimes with accompanying harmonies, which would launch the piece into a certain sound. But as the ’80s progressed, I started to write increasingly in a way that I needed that chordal presence. Guitar with Kevin Eubanks worked really well for me; the instrument has six strings, and you have to play it with a certain sparseness. Vibraphone is the same way; four mallets is the maximum you can expect to play with, so you’re limited to four-note chords.”
Holland extrapolated those quintet concepts for 13-piece orchestra on his most recent album, What Goes Around [ECM], a 2002 poll-sweeper and Grammy nominee. “The idea was to enhance the improvisational aspects of the music with a broader palette of composition and colors, and a larger cast of characters to write for,” he says. “I was particularly influenced by the way Thad Jones wrote so beautifully for all the instruments, so that each part is interesting unto itself, has its own logic and function, and feels like a melody line. I see the written material as functioning like a pianist or vibraphonist might work. The band comes in and provokes or pushes the soloist in certain ways, but they don’t pull the attention away.”
The content meets the hype. Lyric, contemporary, and constantly stimulating, What Goes Around contains some of the most consequential large-ensemble music in recent memory. “At first, I was intimidated,” Holland says matter-of-factly about his decision to take on the project. “I never trained as an orchestral writer; I got my guidelines through listening to records and reading books. But I felt it was time to take on the creative challenge of enlarging the vocabulary I was working on. My wife, Clare, has always encouraged me to rely more on gut feeling — that first reaction to something. It’s helped put me in touch with how I feel about music. I’ve tried to focus in on that musical language in recent years, and not be afraid of romanticism or lyricism. During the ’70s, I was around a lot of ground-breaking music, and I admired people like Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers so much that I felt my pretty little songs were maybe a little too mundane. I’ve stopped worrying about that. Let me just put it out there and, as the Sufis say, ‘plant your banner firmly in the desert sand’ and let people see where you are.”
Observed in retrospect, the 40 years of career-shaping twists and turns that comprise Holland’s oeuvre have the appearance of an inexorable conquering march. He began his journey 57 years ago in the inauspicious environs of Wolverhampton, England, a Midlands steel city that in 1951 held some 160,000 souls.
“There’s no music in my family at all,” Holland relates. “My father, who left us when I was about a year old, apparently was an amateur saxophone player in the Army during the war, but I didn’t know him or his family. We lived with my grandparents. My grandfather and uncle worked in factories, and my mother was a secretary. It was a happy house, and I was always encouraged to play music. They’d get me to play my ukulele at family get-togethers and things like that. My mother remarried. It was not a successful marriage, and we had some problems in the family. So I left school when I was 15 to help her out.
“I’d started playing bass guitar in garage bands when I was 13, but it hadn’t occurred to me to treat music as anything but a hobby. I realized that I was making a few pounds a night playing dances and so on, and decided to do it professionally. Then I thought I should hear some other bass players. I found Ray Brown’s name in a DownBeat poll, bought Affinity and Night Train by the Oscar Peterson Trio, and said, ‘I want to sound like that!’ A week later I had an acoustic bass. I memorized Ray’s walking-bass lines, the same as I’d learn the melody of a song, and incorporated the ideas on gigs, reassembling them in my manner. By that process, I learned how to construct the shape of the line, how to lead the harmony, how to support and launch the soloists.
“Jazz connected with me emotionally but also intellectually for the incredible precision and level of playing and for the dialogue that goes on. The idea of conversation has remained a key element for me all the way through. No other music in the Western world is like it because it’s an in-the-moment narrative and it’s different every time. But I had no ambitions to be a ‘jazz musician.’ I just wanted to be a musician and play jazz as one of the things I could do.”
In the summer of 1963, Holland took his first job as a professional acoustic bassist, playing music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller with a 15-piece dance band at resorts in northern England. At season’s end, a tenor player in the band offered him a gig at a Greek restaurant in London. Holland seized the opportunity. The ambitious teenager began to create a new context for his life.
The period is not well-documented, but Holland’s London years contained the seeds of everything he would subsequently do. He dual tracked, sitting in at clubs in the hopes of networking into London’s fractious, rambunctious jazz scene, and took lessons from James E. Merritt, the principal bassist in the London Philharmonic. Merritt encouraged the prodigy to enroll at Guildhall Music School in 1965.
“I played all the time,” Holland says. “I was principal bassist in the school orchestra after the first year. So, apart from preparing for my bass lesson, I had to prepare the bass section for the orchestral repertoire. I played ‘Rites of Spring’ or the music of Bartok with rehearsal orchestras, and did contemporary chamber music by Xenakis, Penderecki, and Stockhausen. There was a big New Orleans revival in England in the ’60s, and initially I played a lot of Louis Armstrong Hot Five and King Oliver arrangements in pubs. It made a lasting impression. I loved the layers of sound when the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone were improvising together. That’s one reason why I loved Ellington and Mingus. My bands have never been about solo after solo, but about collective dialogue.”
Holland also began to absorb music from non-Western cultures, taking advantage of London’s large Indian community to hear concerts by Vilad Khan and Pannalal Ghosh before informed and enthusiastic audiences. “The incredible development of rhythm in Indian music, the discipline of learning these very involved cycles, and how to subdivide them, was very influential,” he notes. “Evan Parker introduced me to the UNESCO series of world-music records, and I listened to music from Tibet, Afghanistan, and Central Africa. The rhythmic complexity and polyphonic aspect of Pygmy music was incredible. I’d never heard anything like the way two voices would integrate the rhythms and tones so they bounced off each other and created a third, completely different element.[“]
By 1967, Holland was one of London’s busiest session bassists. “I was starting to get a reputation as a good reader, and by this point, they knew that I played a lot of jazz,” he says. He received a call to sub on a recording by the John Dankworth Orchestra of Kenny Wheeler’s Windmill Tilter, a narrative composition of nine movements based loosely around the Don Quixote story. “I got to the studio and played this incredible suite of music,” he recalls. “It was complex, and once I listened to the record and heard the detail of the writing, it blew me away. That was my earliest creative big-band playing. I also played with the Chris McGregor Brotherhood of Breath, which had musicians like Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, and Johnny Dyani. The collective spirit of the music had a big effect on me. Chris was influenced a lot by Ellington, by South African traditional music, and by the contemporary music of Cecil Taylor. He mixed free playing with powerful rhythmic counterpoint melodies that he’d write for the band. And the band played them with an incredible freewheeling spirit. It was like no other band I’d ever played with, and the most interesting big-band work that I did in England.”
Holland’s flawless musicianship and utter disregard for dogma enabled him to bridge London’s various cliques. He played with such Eurocentric free improvisers as Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, and Trevor Watts, as well as with post-boppers like John Surman, Tony Coe, and John Taylor. After 1966, he participated in high-level encounters after-hours at premises formerly occupied by tenor saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott. Sometimes he arrived directly from gigs with the likes of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, or Joe Henderson at Scott’s new venue, where pianist Pat Smythe had recruited him for the house rhythm section, with drummers Tony Oxley and John Marshall.
“To me it’s always been important to play for the music you’re playing,” Holland remarks. “In 1968, I was finishing a month-long engagement at Ronnie Scott’s with Pat Smythe behind a singer named Elaine Delmar, opposite Bill Evans, who had Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. It was high-level playing — standards, nice arrangements, and so on. Miles came into the club fairly early one night and stayed. I presumed he was there to hear Bill and didn’t think twice that he’d even be listening to us. So it didn’t faze me very much, and I kept playing as I wanted for that context. As I was going up to the stand for my last set, Philly Joe Jones — who lived in London at the time — came up and said, ‘Dave, Miles told me to tell you that he wants you to join his band.’ I think had I done anything else than enhance the situation to the best of my abilities, Miles would never have offered me the gig.”
With Miles, Holland learned to be at once anchored and abstract — how to set up a bottom and also fly. And he developed his skills as a soloist. “One thing Dave got from Miles is the ability to project the intention and sound of his ideas on the instrument,” says Jack DeJohnette, a close friend who first met Holland at Ronnie Scott’s in 1966. “Dave can do a solo and grab people like a horn player. He can get an audience standing on their feet. He learned from Miles how to be consistent and focused, like a ray from a laser beam.”
He also found his instrumental voice. “In London, I would put on different masks, depending on the musical situation,” he says. “I’d listen to Ron alter the bass notes and reharmonize the chords. I’d listen to Ray and try to get that walking feeling and interaction. I listened to Scott LaFaro for the freer dialogue and to Gary Peacock with Albert Ayler for more open-form situations. I listened to Jymie Merritt, who is an unsung hero, but brilliant in the original way he broke up time with Max Roach. I was still in that phase when I joined Miles. Then one night, when Tony Williams was still in the band, we were playing a place called the Black Bottom in Montreal, and I remember suddenly feeling that I was no longer any of those people. Something happened, where I felt a connection with myself. I also started realizing that I wasn’t going to succeed in sounding like anyone else. I came back to New York, and my practicing changed. I forced myself to start from scratch. What’s a major scale about? What do these intervals mean? How are they put together? How many ways can I see to reorganize this idea? How can I break down my rhythmic ideas into a system that will allow me to expand on things I’m already doing? I started getting back much more to the building blocks of the music and brought out the elements I wanted to develop.”
Most importantly, Holland learned to shape narrative from musical flow. “I see theater and music as related in some ways,” he says. “In the theater a cast of characters and scenes and events unfold, one leads to another. Sometimes time is compressed and you suddenly find yourself jumping a couple of years. There are moments of drama and contemplation, and emotional climaxes and then lulls. Miles was a master of this whole element of pace. Each night, on any tune, I experienced a different take on how that development could happen. Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of assembling a sequence of events that takes the listener through an emotional and intellectual journey. What’s important is how you craft that journey and make it work for the listener. In other words, how you portray the music without compromising its elements and language. Ellington’s great suites — like “Harlem Air Shaft” — take you on a trip, a journey through life, a feeling about something. When music works at its best for me, that’s what it’s doing — taking me on a trip.”
That three-week engagement at Count Basie’s happened to be Herbie Hancock’s last with Miles. He and Holland would not make music again until 1990, when they toured with DeJohnette and Pat Metheny on DeJohnette’s Parallel Realities project.
“Following that, I expressed to him how much I’d enjoyed it, and he asked if I’d like to do some more things,” Holland relates. “He started calling me for the trio. We played extensively together, and it influenced me deeply. Herbie puts the creative demand on himself to play something fresh every night, even on compositions he’s been playing since the ’60s. That level of improvisation is extraordinary, and so is the dialogue he gets into with the other musicians. He’s taking in everything and throwing it right back out. The joy that he puts into his music somehow released something in me. I was taking music very seriously, maybe too seriously. I don’t mean to belittle seriousness, but seriousness has to be tempered with joy. Herbie brought me in touch with the joy of playing music in a special way.”
Hancock returns the compliment. “I put Dave in the category of Ron Carter,” he says flatly. “That’s the top. He carves out his own territory, which is just as valid as what Ron does. He has a sound I happen to like – very rich. And I like his time, where he places the notes when playing walking bass. But he doesn’t depend on walking. He plays different rhythmic and melodic things — even accompanying the piano — and knows when to move from one to the other. He knows all the stuff harmonically, and he’s very intelligent and open, and responds quickly. Adventurous, too; not afraid to venture into unknown waters. Maybe the key word is balance. He’s an extremely well-balanced bass player, top to bottom — it’s just the way he is. If a bass player is too egotistical or has problems with his own self-assurance or identity, it will affect his playing and, therefore, will affect the rest of the band. Dave is his own man. He’s comfortable with himself, and he’s eager to listen and learn — giving and receiving at the same time. I admire him greatly as a human being. His solid, formidable character, all that love and graciousness and respect for humanity exudes through his playing.”
In spite of all this, Holland, who in 1990 was a household name to anyone with a serious interest in jazz, was still continuing to find it difficult, as he puts it, “to step into the limelight and assert myself in terms of what I wanted to do.”
“As a young man I was quite shy,” he continues. “I would often take a long time to voice my opinion until I saw it was safe to do so. I don’t want to get into psychoanalysis of my childhood, but a lot of things happened then that formulated my approach to dealing with life. Like anyone else, I carried a lot of baggage. Sometimes my democratic and sharing approach would weaken my ability to realize an idea — ‘OK, this is only my idea; maybe I should just let whatever is going to happen, happen.’ Actually, around that time I had a long conversation with Betty Carter. She was like Miles in that she could center in on what was important, and she told me some things that were essential in giving me courage to voice my opinions and be more decisive in following through on ideas. ‘It’s your band,’ she said. ‘Your name is on the music.’”
Recorded at the beginning of 2000, What Goes Around is Holland’s inaugural salvo on the big-band front — but probably not the last. “The quintet will remain my full-time project as long as it stays together,” he says. “But I see the big band extending way out into the future as an ongoing challenge.” Last fall, in support of the record, he embarked on a month-long tour of the United States and Europe that served as a platform to develop older compositions and some newer work, including pieces by Robin Eubanks and his old friend Kenny Wheeler. At the tour’s conclusion, he went into the studio with his road-tested unit to make an album scheduled for 2004 release.
“When I started the quintet in ’97 and recorded the first selection of music for the group, I only knew the starting point I wanted,” Holland notes. “I would never have presumed it would lead to Not For Nothin’. In all good bands, the music develops out of the people involved as a group. As the quintet played together, relationships started to appear, and I and the other musicians who are writing have been able to take advantage of the personalities that emerged. That’s now happening with the big band from performing the music every night, which we hadn’t done. Certainly how we use dynamics has developed. Everybody is learning how their own written parts fit in with everything else in the band, which creates a strong, more unified sound.”
That process played out exquisitely during the last set of an exhilarating four-night, mid-tour residence at Birdland. Smiling broadly, his bass firmly planted onstage, Holland struck the downbeat signaling baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan to blow the elemental melody of “Triple Dance.” The trumpets entered with counterlines, then the trombones with another counterline, and the joyful romp — orchestrated by Holland’s endlessly driving grooves and Billy Kilson’s fluent, surging beats — was on. There were no slack moments. The compositions seemed tailored to such distinctive youngsters as Antonio Hart, Mark Turner, Mark Gross, Josh Roseman, and Alex Sipiagin, whose responses propelled the creative momentum. Their deep connection with the music was palpable.
“Miles worked simultaneously at creating a focus for the band but also drawing on the energy and creative power of his younger players,” Holland says. “I’m not prejudiced against older players or younger players; I’m mostly interested in good players. But the player who’s developing and searching and striving gives the music an edge.
“For me, players find each other. You gravitate towards the things that you need to do. And I’ve been fortunate to be in situations where I heard certain players, they heard me, and were interested in working together. Out of that we’ve made some very good music.”
Downbeat Article, 2005:
“I just want dialogue,” says bassist Dave Holland, encapsulating his musical first principles. “The quality of community in ensemble is central to everything I’ve done. Jazz is an in-the-moment narrative, and it’s different every time. No other music in the Western world is like that.”
Musical conversation and endless polyphony permeate Holland’s elegant arrangements on Overtime [Dare2], his second recording with a 13-piece big band and first release on his own imprint.
The title resonates on several levels.
For one thing, Down Beat’s 58-year-old 2005 Critics Poll trifecta winner–Best Jazz Artist, Best Big Band, and Best Bassist–evolved his aesthetics over a long timespan. In the early ’60s he internalized three-horn polyphony performing King Oliver and Louis Armstrong Hot Five arrangements on New Orleans revival pub gigs. He spent 1968 to 1980 on the world stage, improvising extemporaneously on abstract structures and tabula rasa canvases with Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. He applied the freedom principle to multiple-meter structures in collectively oriented ’80s units with Kenny Wheeler, Julian Priester, Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. During the past decade, he’s committed wholeheartedly to chordal environments with a quintet featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonists Steve Wilson, Chris Potter and Antonio Hart, and drummers Billy Kilson and Nate Smith.
For another, Holland commands a slew of time signatures and metrically modulates them into flow, incorporating four-four swing, triplet structures, and enspiriting beats extrapolated from the ritual musics of pygmy society, India, North Africa, and Indonesia.
“Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of how to assemble a sequence of events that takes the listener through a journey,” Holland says. Renowned as a conjuror of beautiful melodies since his 1972 masterpiece Conference of the Birds, he facilitates the voyage by molding complex rhythms and harmonies to communicate his tales, conveying maximum meaning with a minimum of notes.
To use Holland’s phrase, Overtime is “closed-form music with an open-form sound.” In the manner of Ellington, Thad Jones, and Kenny Wheeler, all consequential role models, Holland presents customized parts, themselves attractive counter-melodies, to his hand-picked virtuosos—augmenting the quintet are saxophonists Mark Gross, Antonio Hart, and Gary Smulyan; trumpeters Duane Eubanks, Taylor Haskins, and Alex Sipiagin, and trombonists Jonathan Arons and Josh Roseman. He propels their solo inventions with surging, interactive basslines, and responds to them with his own intense variations.
“I’m looking first for a strong individual character to their playing, and secondly, an ability to function within a group context,” Holland says of his personnel. “I prefer not to explain a lot. The musicians need freedom to offer their own ideas and concepts, and not be restricted within the frame of reference you give them. Now, having a structure to work from means you can create tension and resolutions against the structure, which would not be there without the structure. But the written music is a starting point. I’ll hear somebody do something I would never have dreamed of; what I hear happening around me directly affects the ideas I play and develop.”
Urbane and articulate, Holland speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs, and stays resolutely on message. He seems loath to acknowledge that he is the gravitational center of his creative orchestra. But his band members note that they take cues, musical and otherwise, from the leader.
“Freedom isn’t something you always know what to do with,” says Potter. “Dave gives parameters–maybe a completely open vamp section on a rhythmic pattern he’s working on–in which you have freedom that feels more free than Free.”
“Dave takes risks,” says Smith, Holland’s latest drummer. “He plays loose, over the bar, under the time, and wants to see how far we can stretch. It’s hard to mess up, because everyone is searching for something new and exciting to do. Even the mistakes are golden. He’ll sing me some skeletal pattern that launches the music, usually a clave, in 7 or 9 or 11 or 13. I’ll play it, and maybe add something. He’ll say, ‘Keep that,’ or ‘No matter what you do, I want you to hit this.’ But I’m always thinking about that clave.”
Holland never allows experimental imperatives to interfere with projecting a communicative groove. “Dave is able to transform odd meters and have you nod your head even though it’s not on 2 and 4,” says Duane Eubanks.
“I never played much odd-meter music before this band,” says Smulyan, a veteran of the Vanguard Orchestra, in which Holland played in the early ’70s. “On our first gigs, everyone was counting like crazy. After a few years, I said to Dave, ‘I’m getting a little worried. I’m starting to feel it.’ He just laughed. Now we don’t count. It’s a particular language all its own, and you decode it.
“He’s an amazing bass player. He and I play a lot of bass-baritone figures together, and he’s incredible to hook up with—his pulse, his drive, his sense of rhythm, his groove are all so strong.”
Holland is adamant that freedom entails responsibility. “People’s personal lives are nothing to do with me,” he says. “My interest is that the gig happens the way it’s supposed to, that the band is ready to play, and that the conditions of our contractual agreements are kept.”
“It doesn’t get much better than this aesthetically, so cats won’t act out of line,” says Eubanks. “Dave’s not cocky. He’s very aware who he is, and he’s satisfied with it. Now, if things deviate, he’ll step in. He’s a stickler for punctuality. He’s at least 10 minutes early every time. Usually 15. Once I missed a flight, though I made the gig. He pulled me over, like, ‘Man, take advantage of the situation.’ Even when he’s mad at you, it’s like he’s not mad at you.”
“Dave’s humility grabbed me first,” says Gross. “He eliminates the distance between bandleader and band-member. For instance, everyone knows I love coffee. Backstage at a gig once, just joking, I said, ‘What is this? No coffee back here?’ Dave went to the promoter and said, ‘Mark wants some coffee. What can we do about that?’ I was really embarrassed! Later he asked, ‘Did you get your coffee, Mark?’ I thanked him. ‘Oh, no problem.’ Of course, once you get on stage, he IS the bandleader, but he commands that through the music, not so much through words.
“He won’t tolerate unprofessionalism or disrespect. Once at a festival, the promoters brought out a vibraphone for Steve Nelson that was like a high school toy set.. Dave said, ‘This is not what he plays on; he needs the professional set of vibes that we stipulated in the rider.’ ‘We can’t get them, Mr. Holland.’ ‘Well, I’m not playing.’ Now, this is a huge festival, lots of money involved. He told the band, ‘Stay at the hotel. This gig might be cancelled. Don’t worry; you all WILL be paid.’”
“A few days after 9/11, we flew to Monterrey,” Hart relates. “That’s a testament to how we feel about Dave, because we were scared; nobody wanted to get on the plane. Before we played, he talked to the people about being strong and turning this tragedy around. It wasn’t a spiritual spiel, but I thought his words were needed, to help us understand we need to push forward, do our job and try to bring beauty into the world.”
With the orchestra booked in Europe for the entire month of July, Holland intends to let the market determine his next step.
“We’ve been able to work consistently throughout the year, but I don’t want to overwork the band or put it on the road when conditions aren’t correct,” he says. “I want everyone to feel good about the situation–that we’re paid properly, and play nice venues.”
Asked how he envisions his sixties, Holland responds, “I tend to do things as they come up.” He cites a forthcoming project with Indian percussion master Trilok Gurtu as an example. “I did a solo concert in Sardinia 18 months ago when Trilok was there with his band, and I invited him to join me at the end for a few pieces. We had a great time, and I wanted to continue. We just spent three days working on new music, and our conversation about some Indian traditions of learning the rhythmic discipline in Indian music gave me many new ideas to think about. If you’d asked about my future plans the week before that concert, Trilok was not in them, but now it’s a reality.
“It’s an ongoing journey that hasn’t reached its end. At least for the near future, the quintet and big band will continue, and this thing with Trilok is the next step. Special projects, like my tour last summer with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade, come up periodically. I’ll take it a step at a time, and we’ll see. I’ll let you know when I get there.”
Dave Holland (www.jazz.com originally from a broadcast on WKCR, Oct. 9, 2008):
On Pass It On [Dare2/Universal], recorded in 2006, Dave Holland offers his first suite of compositions incorporating the piano. It’s the latest iteration of Holland’s exploration of what he calls “the harmonic context,” one that he launched in the middle ‘80s, when guitarist Kevin Eubanks joined his groundbreaking ensemble with MBASE rhythmetricians Robin Eubanks, Steve Coleman, and Marvin Smitty Smith, with whom Holland made several recordings containing some of most compelling speculative music of that decade. By then, the master bassist already could retrospect upon one of the most distinguished careers in late-20th-century jazz, marked by inspired musicianship across a 360-degree range of styles. A high-visibility form-buster at the cusp of the ’70s with Miles Davis’ late-acoustic and early-electric bands, Holland bolted when Miles started moving from abstraction to funk. During the remainder of the decade, he navigated uncharted terrain with Anthony Braxton and improvised from the tabula rasa with Sam Rivers. He developed a book of music for solo bass and cello. In Gateway, a collective trio with John Abercrombie and DeJohnette, he dissected rock, funk, and world-music grooves. Not inconsequentially, he also demonstrated bona fides in the jazz tradition as a valued sideman in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and in groups led by such hardcore jazz royalty as Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Betty Carter, and Hank Jones.
As the ‘90s progressed, Holland drew upon all those experiences in creating “closed form music with an open form sound, creating rhythmic disciplines, writing structures which create possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily stumble across in open-form playing,” first for his sui generis quintet, now in its eleventh year, and then for his thirteen-piece big band, most recently represented on Overtime [Dare2]. The quintet and big band music is chock-a-block with episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, loads of polyphony, call-and-response, background riffs, and a global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles. Propelled and knit together by the leader’s relentless grooves, ringing sound, and harmonic acuity, they stand as meaningful signposts of what contemporary jazz can be.
“I combine simple and complex elements,” Holland said at the time. “The music has inner layers that make it interesting to play repeatedly over a period of time. I try to integrate the soloist and rhythm section. I write the counterpoint into the compositions, but it continues on seamlessly when we move into ensemble improvisation.”
During the second week of October, Holland supported Pass It On with a four-night engagement at New York’s Birdland, and joined me at WKCR to talk about it and other matters.
TP: This group is your first with a piano. Can you describe the progression by which you assembled it?
DAVE: I’ve really been following the musical directions I’ve been inspired to go in. My first working band was around ‘82. We had at that time a three-horn front line with Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, and Julian Priester, respectively, on trumpet, alto saxophone, and trombone. That group lasted until about ‘87, when I started a quartet that featured Kevin Eubanks on guitar—I wanted to write some music that needed that chordal context, but I didn’t want a chordal instrument that overly defined the harmonic context of the music. The guitar still left an openness to it. Following that group, I started a band that involved Steve Nelson, a wonderful vibraphonist who lives in the New York area. Steve and I have been playing together for about fifteen years, and we are still working together in the quintet that I have with Chris Potter on saxophone, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Nate Smith on drums, and Steve Nelson.
TP: You’ve had that group as such for about a decade.
DAVE: Actually, eleven years now. So the music has been going in the direction of including a harmony instrument like vibes or piano. Now, Steve’s style of playing the vibes is unique and I love what he brings to the music. But again, there is a sparseness to the instrument. It mostly works, at maximum, with four mallets, so you have a certain limitation with how dense the chords are.
For the last couple of years, I’d been thinking about another sound to the group, and wanted to start a new opportunity. In a way, it started with thinking about the rhythm section, two people I’d played with very briefly, but wanted to do a lot more with. One was Mulgrew Miller, the other was Eric Harland. I was starting to think about what music would suit that band, and the three-horn front line would give me some other compositional instrumentation opportunities. So that was the genesis of this group.
TP: As a young guy, before you came to the United States, you were house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s club in London…
DAVE: Amongst other things, yes.
TP: Amongst other things. You were playing in the traditional jazz rhythm section behind the acts coming through, with I guess the pianist Pat Smythe…
DAVE: He was one of the pianists. Gordon Beck was another. There were several people. But I worked a lot with Pat Smythe, a wonderful English piano player. In England I also played with a couple of groups that didn’t use piano. I had a trio that was put together by John Surman, the great baritone player, and Alan Jackson was the drummer—the bass had a great chance to influence not only the rhythm, but the harmony of the group, and it led to playing in a very free harmonic context. At that time, in the ‘60s, I was being influenced by Ornette Coleman’s music, Albert Ayler, and many of the things that were going on. I was in another group with John Stevens, the English drummer, with Evan Parker and Derek Bailey, and we were exploring open improvisation contexts. After I was in the States, in the ‘70s, I worked with Sam Rivers, a trio, and with Anthony Braxton, in a quartet with Kenny Wheeler and then George Lewis. These also were an instrumentation that didn’t have a chordal instrument. So when I started my first group, I naturally leaned towards that, and wanted to keep that area of the music very open-ended.
But as the music evolved, I started to feel that I wanted to use more closed-form music. In other words, instead of more open-ended songs, I started writing things where the form had some influence as well on the playing. As that started to evolve, I was writing more chordal music again, and I thought I should bring in a chordal instrument, which I did, from guitar to the vibraphone to the piano.
TP: Speak a bit about your simpatico, your chemistry with Mulgrew Miller and Eric Harland, what it was that you heard in their sounds that inspired you to bring them into your orbit.
DAVE: I always feel that the person behind the music—their feeling about life and working with other people, their generosity, and all these kinds of things—is what comes through in any great musician. I’ve found both Mulgrew and Eric to be really wonderful people, and through that, their music is very embracing and inclusive and communally minded. How people work together becomes a very important aspect for me—not just as strong individuals, but how they work together as a team and how open they are to what’s going on in the band.
More specifically, for me Mulgrew embodies the tradition of the piano, going back to early influences. It’s all there in his playing. But he’s managed to create a very individual, personal, and contemporary way of using those influences. He is also a consummate accompanist. It’s a thrill to hear what he’s playing behind the soloist; not only soloing on piano, but what he does within the rhythm section.
To me, Eric is a unique drummer. Again, he’s a great listener. He’s very supportive. He’s totally in touch with the musical moment that we’re involved in as we play, and he’s always pushing to create a new rhythmic context for the group and finding new ways to approach the pieces that we’ve been playing. There’s a very nice balance between a sort of free approach and a formal approach to the music, so it covers a lot of ground for me. Of course, the feel of what he does is wonderful, too.
TP: And just as in 1985, you’re using three horns in the front line and lots of polyphony, which gives you ample opportunity to use a lot of different configurations within the flow of any musical performance.
DAVE: Yes, I went back to that front line of trumpet, alto saxophone and trombone, because it gives you so much possibility for creating a context for the music—you get a different sound and other compositional possibilities. It gives you all the harmonic possibilities you can think of in voicing, and it’s a wonderful challenge to figure out how to utilize the instruments to their full potential. You can almost have it sound like a big band, you can have counterpoint, supportive background figures for soloists, and all these kinds of things, which aren’t quite as easy to do with two horns. I think once you’ve learned to write for three horns, you can then go on to write for many other things.
TP: The presence of those sounds and possibilities in your mind’s ear goes back, if I’m not mistaken, to your early years in England when you played in New Orleans style bands and heard that emphasis on polyphony close-up.
DAVE: The early gigs I got as a jazz player in London were in pubs playing New Orleans style music. I loved the independence of the front line and the celebratory feeling when the ensemble all played together, the counterpoint and so on. It was employed, of course, by many other musicians. Ellington, Charles Mingus, many people who have sort of…
TP: You’ve just mentioned two of the best.
DAVE: Well, where do you want me to start!? I have to give you the ideals that stand out to me. Those are. They had ways of combining written parts with written parts, and ensemble improvisation, and all these kind of things that I’m still interested in finding different ways to present.
TP: During the ‘70s, because you were playing so much as a sideman with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton, whatever compositional ideas that you had, which were expressed on an album that remains one of my favorites, Conference of the Birds, with both Braxton and Sam Rivers in ‘72, were subsumed in a certain way. You did some solo recordings and so on, but not ensemble albums. When you started bandleading, did you already have a big backlog of work?
DAVE: No, not particularly.
TP: That development was precipitated by an illness, I think.
DAVE: We’ve got a lot of things to talk about there. First of all, I’ve always felt that there is an apprenticeship involved—as it applies to me, anyway—to being a musician. Of course, it’s a lifelong learning process. Now, when I made Conference of the Birds in ‘72, I was 25. I still felt I had a lot of things to learn about being a bandleader, about what it was that I wanted to do. I was trying to focus in on what were important elements in the music that I wanted to pursue in my own work, and I was quite happy to be still working as a sideman during the ‘70s. Sam’s band used his compositions, in the case of the big band or a couple of the other larger ensembles that he did. But in the small group that I mostly played with, we never used any written music. It was all open improvisation. After 7 or 8 years of playing together, it sounded like it was written, but it was in fact improvised, and it was a wonderful opportunity to start every night with a blank page in front of you and just fill it in with whatever happened to be on your mind that evening. Braxton was quite the opposite. He was a very detailed composer, a structuralist, who composed very demanding music that he would present to you that required a lot of attention and concentration and interpretation. That was almost a counter-balance to what I did with Sam. Those two things were very interestingly placed in my life. I didn’t write for that either; that was all Anthony’s music.
The groups I did write for were Gateway Trio, and some solo work. By the time ‘82 came around, I’d decided it was time. I was reluctantly being pushed by myself to start a group. I said, “Ok, enough of this sitting on the fence; what is it I really want to do?” There was some music I wanted to play that I wasn’t finding a place for in any of the contexts I was already in. As I was preparing for that, I contracted a very serious illness called endocarditis, which is a bacterial infection of the heart valve, and I ended up taking a year out, having to have surgery and various other things. It ended up in a very positive way—I had a new lease on life, no medications or anything like that. I had a very close call. I was very lucky. But as a result of that close call, as I think probably many people will tell you who have been in similar situations, I felt a renewed appreciation for what I did have, and a renewed commitment to making a full-blown effort to put out there the music that I was really wanting to play. That resulted in the first quintet, with Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, Julian Priester, and Smitty Smith.
TP: That band was an interesting incubator for a lot of ideas that were subsequently expressed and developed more fully on the broader scene.
DAVE: There were a lot of great influences coming into the group. Conceptually, we were all coming from somewhat varied backgrounds, but there were connecting points. Julian Priester already had an incredible career by the time he came to my group—he’d been with Max Roach’s band particularly, as well as the sextet that Herbie started after he left Miles, and he brought all that experience with him. Julian told me that he’d played the Newport Festival with Max in the ‘50s, and they were presenting tunes in 5/4, which was very unusual then. Of course, Max made a groundbreaking record in ‘56 called Jazz in 3/4 Time, which was a huge deal at that point, because nobody in the music played in 3/4 time.
Of course, Kenny was an old friend from England. I had extreme respect for him as a composer, and he had been a very important influence on my writing—I had always wanted to do more with him. He had played with Braxton, and so I wanted to continue that relationship.
I met Steve Coleman through Sam Rivers. He was one of the alto players in Sam’s big band. When I met him, I didn’t really know his background in music, where he was coming from and what he was doing. I just liked his playing. I liked his sound. I liked the seriousness of his approach. I thought he was working on something unique. I’d heard him with Abbey Lincoln at a festival in Austria, and asked him, “Steve, would you be interested in this group I’m starting?” So he became involved.
The first drummer we had was Steve Ellington, who had also been with Sam Rivers’ trio. Steve lived in Atlanta, and it made it difficult for us to arrange rehearsals and so on. I met Smitty Smith at a jam session, Smitty just blew me away, and I asked him to join the band.
So all these influences were brought together. Steve had been playing with Doug Hammond, a very interesting drummer who was living in New York at the time. They had been working on some interesting concepts which Steve had been developing himself, and Smitty was hungry for something to get his teeth into and work on. All these things kind of came together compositionally and in the improvisational realm to create a very wide range of influences. I think we all kind of learned from each other. Earlier than that, I had written some music which had used some different time signatures, but I hadn’t really gone deep into it. I’d also worked with John McLaughlin, the guitarist, who had done this. But that area became an area of great interest to the group, and we started to move towards consideration of what kinds of forms we could write that would influence the music in different ways, and that evolved over a period of time. I have to say that it was a very important period in my life for realigning my direction in music—as I said, writing closed form music and eventually moving towards including a chordal instrument into what I was doing.
TP: You also, in your own personal investigations, had been involved in researching North African music, Indian music, pygmy music, music from different cultures in the world.
TP: Which also dates back to your earlier investigations in England, and those spurred later work.
DAVE: There was a big Indian community in London, and some really astounding musicians, like Vilad Khan and some of the of great vina players, would come through London and do concerts. The concerts were interesting, because the Indian audience seemed to have such a great knowledge of what was going on. They would be so involved in the whole development of the music, and would make exclamations during the performance when things would happen and so on. So it was a very engaging kind of audience that was happening.
I also got interested in African music, and the UNESCO series of records—The Ba-Benzali Pygmies from Central Africa in particular, and also records from the Central African Republic and Nigerian Hausa music—that were put out during that time were a great source of information. I also got interested in Tibetan Buddhist music, partly because of Coltrane’s influence. I’ve always been interested in a lot of different music. I’ve always been a music fan as well as a musician. I love finding new things to listen to, finding new ways to put music together. As a musician is you go through your life collecting things. You find something that’s interesting to you, explore it, and perhaps find a way to integrate it into the things you’re already working on. For me, it’s a matter of keeping the movement of learning and exploring new ideas, and bringing new ideas into your music.
TP: Have your investigations with the new sextet had any impact on what you do with the quintet, which by now is such a well-established entity?
DAVE: The quintet has a concept of its own, I think. After playing together eleven years, we’ve made some strong connections musically and personally. We have a large book of music that we refer to when we do concerts, and we’re still adding music to that book. So it’s still evolving. As I like to do, and I think also the other composers involved, I like to write for the people in the band. So I see the music I present in these two different contexts as more or less different. I’m not trying to cross over the two.
I don’t know if it’s being influenced by the sextet. I’m being influenced by it, so I suppose it could be! As we perform these pieces, new approaches come out. But I can’t really say whether they are going to find their way into the quintet. In the end, everything is sort of in a big pot of ideas that I’m working on.
TP: Indeed, you’ve embraced a 360-degree range of ideas and strategies over the last 45 years.
DAVE: I’m trying to just follow the musical ideas that seem relevant to me at the different times I’m playing, and to do things that interest me, that feed the fire of my creative ideas that hopefully will inspire me to create some new things. Just the other day, I was reflecting that I seem to have been building up a circle of people since I started my own projects. That circle is expanding. They are people who I am learning how to play with, they’re learning about the music I’m presenting, and so on. It’s a sort of large work in progress, and there’s different aspects to it. All three horn players in this group have been part of the big band, and the concepts we’ve developed there influence how we’ve approached the sextet music, I’m sure. A certain understanding builds up amongst your associates about how things get approached, the musical language that’s being used, and so on. I see that continuing. A lot of time has gone by, so those projects have expanded and morphed into other things. Some people are in two or three different projects, some are just in one. I’m happy to be so fortunate to have associations with such wonderful, generous musicians who are so dedicated to excellence, to playing music, and to giving everything they’ve got, the full essence of who they are in their music.
TP: That generosity may have something to do with your comportment as a bandleader as well. Did you draw on anyone’s examples in evolving your approach?
DAVE: The underlying principle for me is respect—respecting another person on a lot of levels. Respecting them creatively for what they do, and giving as much creative space as you can in the music to their ideas and what they do. I basically work on the principle of trying to treat people as I like to be treated. When I’m in a band, it’s nice to have some direction, to have some idea of where we’re going with the music and what’s intended. But it’s also nice to have a lot of freedom within that to make decisions, to figure out for yourself what’s required, and not have the bandleader tell everybody what to do in that way. My theory is that if you’ve got the right people in the band you don’t have to say a whole lot. Robin said in one piece, “Dave just likes to wind up the band and let it go.” I thought that was an interesting way to put it. If you’ve got the right people, it’s possible to do that. Then you try to figure out some music that hopefully will inspire them and give them a feeling of being able to express themselves.
Who do I have as examples? I’ll go back to Ellington and the way he kept his group together. I don’t know what the inner workings were. I know there were a lot of stormy moments in that band. I’m speaking more about how he approached it creatively, and how he thought about the other musicians. Miles is a great example to me for how to do more with less, not to overly instruct the musicians, and even sometimes under-instruct them and make them think, “Well, what is it I’m supposed to do?” I remember reading that Coltrane spent the first period with the band asking Miles, “What is it you want me to do?” and Miles just ignored him until Coltrane finally realized that he had to figure that out for himself. Examples like that have hopefully instructed me on how to give just enough leadership to the group without smothering the creative talents of the people involved in it.
TP: You don’t do much sideman work any more, but you did spend the past summer on a massive caravan with Herbie Hancock, all around the world, playing a lot of electric bass.
DAVE: Yes, I think more than half of the music we played on the concerts was on electric bass.
TP: What was that like? You haven’t played electric bass for a minute or two.
DAVE: Quite. More than a minute. Actually, the last time I was playing it on gigs (and in fact, that was an acoustic bass guitar, which is a different type of instrument) was in the mid ‘90s, and that was actually with Herbie also. We did a record called The New Standard, and on several tracks on that I used this acoustic bass guitar. It’s a great instrument. We took it out on tour, and I used it on there. Prior to that, I think it was 1990 when I last played the solid body electric, and that was on the Parallel Realities tour we did then with Jack DeJohnette and Herbie and Pat Metheny.
So it had been a long time, and it took me by surprise, because Herbie didn’t tell me til about two days before the rehearsals. We had a chat on the phone, and he said, “I just want to run down the set to you, and I was thinking about trying these tunes”—and he started naming the tunes. Of course, some were from the new album, The River: The Joni Letters, but there were also several things from his earlier days. In fact, the tour ended up being somewhat of a review of Herbie’s career, going back to tunes like “Actual Proof” that the Headhunters did, and “Chameleon.”
TP: There would be long encores.
DAVE: We had some long encores! I think the longest concert we did was nearly three hours, and certainly an hour of that was encore. But it was great fun. Any time I’m with Herbie, there’s a lot of fun involved in playing the music with him.
But getting back to the bass guitar, it was a surprise to me. Even though both are bass instruments, they are quite different in the touch and concept. We had a few days of rehearsals, and I was trying to come to terms with it. Then we went out on the road and started working. I have to say that I was still struggling with it for the first week-and-a-half or so—not very enthusiastic about it at the beginning, I have to admit. But the music kind of took over, and playing with Herbie and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums… Vinnie is an extraordinary drummer, whom I’d only played with on the record we’d done with Herbie, The River. I knew he was a great musician, but boy, he showed me so much stuff in his playing! So those things were very inspiring to me, and as time went by I got into the bass guitar again and had a lot of fun with it.
TP: But we’re not going to see it in your own musical production.
DAVE: I’m going to reserve that comment to see what happens. I certainly enjoyed it. Who knows?
TP: What is forthcoming is a project you’ve worked on and presented publicly here and there, but not approached systematically, which is an octet.
DAVE: It’s a five-horn octet. It’s based a little bit on the model of the small Ellington band. I loved that front line he had with trumpet, trombone, and three saxophones, alto, tenor and baritone, and I wanted to model something after that sound that Ellington produced. The horn players all have played in the big band, of course. A couple of pieces are reduced octet versions of the big band pieces that we’ve played, but a fair amount of the music was written exclusively for the octet. We’ve done it as an adjunct project. We launched it, I believe, in 2000 (we took it to England for an Arts Council tour), and we’ve featured it on a few concerts, but as you say, we haven’t done anything with it in the recording realm.
I’ve been looking at this record company as a way to document some different projects, and the quintet has been well-documented on a lot of CDs. One of the last three records on Dare2 has been with the quintet, but I wanted to keep going on and do some other projects, and the octet seemed worth doing. We did a concert earlier this year, and some people in the audience yelled out, “Hey, when are you going to record it?” I thought, “Well, maybe it’s time to record the octet.” That will be done in January.
TP: There was a time when your recorded output always seemed to be about three years behind the fact, just because you had so much going on. Will this change with ownership of your own label?
DAVE: I did my last few records for ECM very independently, in the sense that I scheduled the recording session and financed it all myself, and then, after we’d done, presented it to ECM as a finished product, and asked if they were interested in putting it out, which they did. That’s been the case since the middle ‘90s. So in that sense, my scheduling of the project is the same. I do have a bit more control about release times, but of course, we still do have to follow the conventions in terms of when is a good time for records to come out, that you don’t step on the last record that you did too early.
I think the biggest change is the fact that the masters now belong to us, to the company, and we have some controlling interest in terms of how it’s promoted and presented—we decide the cover art and all these kinds of things. The covers of the last three records were all done by a good friend of mine, Niklaus Troxler, who does the Willisau Jazz Festival. He’s a very acclaimed graphic artist, and I’ve always appreciated his work, so I wanted him on board to do the covers for me.
TP: Talk to any musician these days, and they’ll say that travel is much more difficult than it used to be. You’ll go on the road next week, and even as you enter your sixties you continue to be quite the road warrior. You travel a lot, which is no easy thing for bassists and drummers because of the difficulties of transporting the instrument. Describe what you’ve been using for the last couple of years.
DAVE: Prior to that, I’d been traveling with my regular instrument all my life. The weight of that instrument, plus the case it travels in, is about 100 pounds, which up to a few years ago was no problem. You either had a very friendly check-in person who said, “Fine,” or you paid $50, $100, a couple of hundred dollars, depending on your flight, and you checked it in. Starting 3 or 4 years ago (well, even before that), after all the security was ramped up and new requirements were made, things got extremely difficult with flying. But in recent years, they’ve created a weight limit, both because of the economics of the airlines, but also that the baggage handlers union have limited what weight they’re willing to pick up. If you’re a baggage handler, that’s completely reasonable—you don’t want to have pick up 150 pounds and load it onto a plane. The limit now is 70 pounds for checked baggage. Sometimes you’re allowed 50 pounds before you pay the extra weight. But if it’s over 70 pounds, they are entitled to refuse you access to the flight with your baggage. So I found increasingly that I was having more and more problems checking the bass on. Even on a round-trip flight to California, for instance, on an airline that I use all the time, and have the cards for frequent flying and so on, they wouldn’t take it. They flew me to California but wouldn’t fly me back to New York. I had to spend an hour-and-a-half talking to supervisors, and all this kind of thing.
It just got too much. Too much stress, too much doubt as to whether you were going to make the gig, if you have to find another flight. I was hearing stories about bass players stranded in Europe and having to wait two days to get another flight. It just became too much, and I didn’t want to have that kind of stress.
A few years ago, a bass player, Ira Coleman, approached a bass repairer and maker, David Gage, here in New York, with an idea for creating a slightly modified version of a double bass that would reduce the weight and reduce the case size. As a result, that instrument weighs around 50-52 pounds, and so it’s well within the range of acceptable baggage. I’ve been playing that instrument when I tour for about 2½ years now. It’s a new instrument, and of course, it doesn’t have the complexity perhaps of the older instrument, but in most situations where we’re performing, we’re dealing with sound systems, P.A. systems, playing through speakers, and with the right technician at the board… Luckily, I’m able to travel with my own sound technician now, so we have good control over what happens in that area. So we’ve been able to find a solution to this problem.
I have to say I do resent the situation. I think it’s absolutely terrible that airlines have created a situation where musicians can’t travel with their own instrument. One solution is that bass players borrow an instrument at every gig, which to me is very unsatisfactory because every instrument is so unique, and every aspect of the instrument—the string settings and the type of strings—is different each night. I would much prefer to have an instrument that I can use consistently every time I perform. So this has actually solved a lot of problems. It’s called a Czech-Ease bass, and to me, it’s a very good solution to the whole problem we’re dealing with. Many bass players I know are using it now. I think David Gage has made a real contribution for us bass players to have designed this instrument and made it possible to at least travel with a good instrument.
TP: Another forthcoming project that you mentioned is a collaboration with some flamenco artists, which I suppose dovetails with your interest in… Is there another phrase besides “odd meters” that we can use to discuss 7/4, 9/4, and 5/4 time signatures? Do you go for “odd meters?
DAVE: I don’t know what you would call it. To me, if you speak to a Turkish musician, 7 is not odd. So I think “odd meters” is not a very good term. I say that I like playing in different time signatures.
TP: Anyway, you’ll be playing in the flamenco world.
DAVE: And what a world that is. A couple of years ago I was approached by a man in Spain, Mario Campo, who was a representative of ECM in Spain, but also has his own small label that he started several years ago, with the goal of doing very good-quality recordings of flamenco music, which unfortunately had not happened in the flamenco world. He had the idea that I might be interested in a project with a flamenco artist, and after we talked about a couple of people, we finally found a musician, Pepe Habichuela, who is from a very distinguished family of Spanish gypsy musicians and bullfighters and singers. I think he’s a fifth-generation guitarist. So I had a meeting with Pepe. My Spanish is extremely limited and his English is extremely limited, but we managed to communicate a respect for each other, I think, which was a very nice start to the whole relationship. A year ago last May, I went to Spain and did some concerts and spent several days rehearsing with him and some members of his entourage, some of whom are family members, and some associates that he’s played with. The group that we’ve landed on is a three-guitar group with 2 cajons (the traditional box drum that’s actually from South America, but it’s been included in flamenco music in recent years) and bass—so it’s a six-piece group.
My idea for doing it was really to enter into the flamenco world. Finding a meeting place is very hard sometimes for two different traditions. I’ve been involved with a great Arabic musician, Anouar Brahem, a player of the oud, and really, when we play together, I am very much entering into Anouar’s world. That’s the way it works. The kind of music I’m doing, for instance, with this sextet would be not appropriate for that situation, and the same for the flamenco music. I really wanted to treat the flamenco music with respect and not take away from the great stature of that music. I made that clear to Pepe, and I said to him, “Please, would you teach me your music?” He’d written a lot of things, and we started working through some songs and different dance forms. A lot of the music is based on dance forms like the fandango and the seguria and the buleria, and many others. I found I’d actually underestimated, if that’s possible, the beauty of flamenco music. I hadn’t realized quite the depth and intricacy of it all. Of course, a lot of it had to be learned, memorized—and very complex forms.
So we started working on it, and we did a series of concerts. We went back this year, did some more concerts, some more rehearsals, and I’ve proposed now we’re going to do a record of this music in March. It will be out on my label, Dare2, and we’re going to try to document some of this music. There will be a couple of originals of mine on the record also. But in large part, it’s going to be Pepe’s music and performed by that group.
TP: So the two forthcoming recording projects are this flamenco project and the octet.
DAVE: Yes. I’m not yet sure in what order we’ll release them. Really, I’m more interested in recording them and getting them documented at the time it’s appropriate, and then we’ll see what makes the most sense as far as releases are concerned.
TP: So both will be out at Dare2 records, which is available through your website, http://www.daveholland.com?
DAVE: Well, you’ll get the information there. That website doesn’t have the facility to download from at the moment. But we’re starting a new website that will be http://www.dare2records.com, which will be a full-service website where you’ll be able to download not only tracks from the records, but also live performances. We’ve recorded a lot of live performances over the last four or five years, of various projects I’ve been doing, and we’ll eventually make those available on the website eventually.
TP: So for the last four-five years, you’re in the ranks of musician-entrepreneurs.
DAVE: A lot of people are bemoaning the record industry, and certainly it’s going through some problems at the moment, as are most businesses. But there are also some new opportunities, and I think that musicians, as they have in the past, need to look at the situation creatively and decide what they can do to make the most of what’s available. The Internet has created a great window to the world for musicians to be able to communicate with their public and to get communication back from them, and also to let people know what they’re doing and to make their music available. One of the things I like about it is that it’s released us from the constraints of albums. We can actually release one or two tracks of a project, and not have to think about a complete album’s worth of material necessarily at once.
TP: Sometimes less is better than more.
DAVE: I think the choices are what counts—the fact that the consumer has a choice of downloading a track, or two tracks, or whatever. Mostly I’m interested in putting the music in the hands and the ears of the people who would like to take advantage of and maximize the possibilities.