Courtesy of Dave Holland



I have spoken to Dave Holland a handful of times. And not once have I been bored or not hanging on his every word. Oddly, that is exactly how I feel about his music. Not once have I been bored or not hanging on his every note. If you are familiar with Bitches Brew, that groove you hear being laid down, that is Holland. His quintet is possibly the most underrated working band in improvised music today and that is a tragic shame because Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, Billy Kilson, and Robin Eubanks are superb in this band. Their last two albums on ECM, Points of View and Prime Directive are both five star recordings. The interaction and dialogue between this five men is something else. So it is always an honor to bring to you, Dave Holland, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

DAVE HOLLAND: I grew up in the Midlands area of England around the Birmingham area and when I was four years old, my uncle, who was living in the same house that I was living in, had as a hobby, playing the ukulele. At four years old, I was interested in this instrument already and he taught me a few chords on it. So that is how I started on string instruments. I was given a guitar when I was ten years old and when I was thirteen, myself and a few friends put together a garage band and we had three guitars, a drummer, and a singer. We decided that we needed a bass player and I volunteered for it. That is how I got started on playing bass. So when I was fifteen, I turned professional and I was by then in another group and we would play dance halls and try to do the rock and roll pop type of thing and we did that for a couple of years. In the meantime, I was exposed to jazz bass players Ray Brown and Leroy Vinnegar when I was fifteen and I got an acoustic bass and started playing it. I practiced it at home and when I was seventeen, I was offered a job with a dance band in the north of England for a summer season and that was my first job as an acoustic player. So I started off as a bass guitarist professionally and then moved to acoustic bass. I still play some bass guitar occasionally.

FJ: The bass is not a glorified instrument, guitar players garner much more adoration, why switch?

DAVE HOLLAND: I think string instruments in general were something I felt an affinity for. I liked the bass. I was a rhythm guitarist and the bass seemed a more interesting thing to do than play chords. It didn't have the high profile of the lead guitarist, but I wasn't really ready for that at the time. It seemed to suit my personality. I always liked the sound of the instrument from when I was quite young. I remember hearing it on records and so on. As soon as I started playing it, I felt that I had found the right voice for myself.

FJ: What role does the bass play in a band?

DAVE HOLLAND: The fundamental role that the bass has always had is to outline the lower parts of the harmony and be supportive rhythmically. You work very closely with the drummer, usually in a jazz group and in the rhythm section. It is sort of a fulcrum in the group. It is a point at which the harmony and the rhythm all kind of meet. Of course, over the years, so many great players have contributed to the concept of the instrument developing to the point where the instrument is recognized as a solo instrument and as a part of the rhythm section. Its role has been redefined many, many times.

FJ: Who are some of the individuals who have redefined the role of the bass?

DAVE HOLLAND: Well, early on in the history of this music, jazz music, Wellman Braud was one of the pioneers. He worked with the Basie band in the Thirties. It is generally accepted that a giant leap was taken with Jimmy Blanton, who was a very young player and he joined Duke Ellington's band in the late Thirties, early Forties. Duke Ellington recognized what a great talent he was and used that to the maximum in the music that he wrote. He gave Jimmy a great vehicle for developing his talents. Unfortunately, he died very young. He died in his twenties and his contributions shook the world of bass players. That was picked up very quickly by Oscar Pettiford, who followed him into the Ellington band and Ray Brown, at this time in the early Forties, who worked with Dizzy Gillespie's group, was instrumental in developing the instrument. Charles Mingus was a part of the bebop revolution in the Forties and played with Charlie Parker and went on to become a bandleader and a composer of quite individual talent. After him, I would say many other players. I don't want to leave people out. But I would say also Scott LaFaro, again, died young and played with the Bill Evans Trio in the early Sixties made a tremendous impact on the role of the instrument.

FJ: Who stands out?

DAVE HOLLAND: Well, I have a special place for Ray Brown's playing because his approach to the instrument was the thing that inspired me initially. I feel that that is at the bottom of my playing and that that is the fundamental influence that I have on my playing. He kind of holds a special place for me.

FJ: Aside from the obvious, why Ray Brown?

DAVE HOLLAND: He epitomized all the great qualities of being a bass player. He would play a tremendous supporting role. He was able to change. He related to each soloist in slightly different ways and played for their style of playing. He is a great soloist, impeccable time, impeccable intonation on the instrument, just the highest level of musicality, just great ideas that he plays.

FJ: You were a young man when you started working in Miles Davis' band. Of course you were on the landmark Bitches Brew.

DAVE HOLLAND: Yes, it was a great period. I appeared on a number of albums with him during that time, between '68 and '71. I was twenty-one years old. It was quite a daunting prospect to play with him. Even though I was young, I had some very important experiences in England playing with many, many people including Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins as well as a very thriving community that was in London at the time in the mid-Sixties. But of course, I was a little intimidated by the opportunity, but at the same time wanted to keep my equilibrium and to do the best that I could. I didn't know if I would be able to stay in the group and if my time with the band would last very long, but I figured even if I was in the band for a week, I would learn so much during that week that it would be a valued experience. It went on for nearly three years.

FJ: What was Miles' leadership approach, after all, next to Ellington, he is the most canonized leader and composer in improvised music?

DAVE HOLLAND: First of all, Fred, in this music, a lot is learned through observation and just by listening and watching people. Miles understood that and he spoke very little in a direct way about the music. He wasn't a teacher that sort of held forth about ideas and so on. He did it much more by example and by setting up a situation for the musicians to be creative within. He demanded the highest creativity from the musicians that played with him, but he expected you to come up with your own solutions. He didn't want to have to tell you what to do. He felt that if he had somebody in the band that he needed to tell what to do, he had the wrong person probably in the group. He wanted people that could come in and bring their own creative ideas into the group and add those to the central ideas that he had. He also was a leader that was able to lead with a very gentle hand. He wasn't a dictator. He encouraged you to think for yourself and to come up with your own ideas.

FJ: Miles was an enigma, one of the things that helped him become larger than life.

DAVE HOLLAND: I had a wonderful experience. It was one of the formidable experiences in my life, to play with him. It was a great honor and a great experience.

FJ: Let's touch on your initial album as a leader for ECM, Conference of the Birds.

DAVE HOLLAND: That was done in 1972. That was my first album as a leader, under my own name. I have done some other recordings, some cooperative lead groups like the Circle group with Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, and Barry Altschul and a few other things in the early Seventies. The first album that had my name on it was Conference of the Birds, yes.

FJ: Sam Rivers appears on the record.

DAVE HOLLAND: Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, and Barry Altschul. We were very good friends and we had worked together for several years in Circle that Anthony and Barry had formed as a cooperative after Chick and I had left the Miles Davis group. I played with Sam all the way through the Seventies until '81. We had close to nine, ten years of playing together all through that period. I would say most of my playing was with Sam during that decade. We worked in duets, trios, quartets, all up to big band situations too. Sam is a very accomplished writer for the larger ensembles. Anthony is a very creative thinker, very original thinker and always came up with very unusual and interesting ideas for us to work with within the band.

FJ: Anthony Braxton has been maligned unfairly for that original creativity.

DAVE HOLLAND: You know, Fred, this music is one that prides itself on its individuality and one of the things that is the mark of a fine musician is the ability of recognize their sound and their own approach. That is the whole point in developing your own style is to find your own voice and Anthony, certainly, has his own voice. He has got a great intellectual power and has brought that to bear on structure and how he puts his music together.

FJ: Let's touch on your own quintet, Billy Kilson, Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, and Robin Eubanks.

DAVE HOLLAND: Well, the person that I have known longest in that group is Robin Eubanks. Robin, in fact, was in a quintet that I had in the mid-Eighties and recorded one of those albums with us. It's called The Razor's Edge (ECM), which is the last of three albums that I did with that quintet. He came in after Julian Priester left the band, a very fine trombonist and Robin played with the band for the last period. We have played on and off together since then. When I put this group together a few years ago, he was one of the first people that I thought of to involve. He is somebody that I wanted to go back to and play with. He has got a wonderful sound on the instrument and as have all the players, he's got a very, very broad range of understanding of the music and can work within a lot of different kinds of musical contexts. That is one of the keys that this band has to offer and that is we approach the music from a lot of different points of view, which is one of the reasons why we had that title on our first album with this group. Chris Potter is the most recent member. He has been in the band for nearly two years now. He is the youngest member too. He is about twenty-nine now. I heard him when he came to New York when he was seventeen and he was playing with Red Rodney and he had amazing maturity for a seventeen-year-old player at that time. We played a few years ago on an album that he recorded for Concord (Unspoken) and after doing that album, I had a much greater understanding of where Chris' musical ideas were and what he was doing and when there was an opening in the band for a saxophone player, Chris was my first choice. Steve Nelson and I met on a record date about ten years ago now that we were doing for a drummer named Tony Reedus. At the time, I really loved the way he approached the vibes and the feeling that he produced, but also he is a very brilliant thinker on the instrument too and is a true improviser. He comes up with new ideas all the time and new ways of approaching the music. We talked at that time about playing together and when I formed a quartet in '93, I asked him to join it. We recorded an album with Eric Person and Gene Jackson. They were the other members of the quartet called Dream of the Elders. And finally, Billy Kilson and I met when he was living in Boston in '87. He took part in a big band concert that I organized up there. There was a big band that was working in Boston and they asked me to bring some music up and do a concert with them. I met Billy at the rehearsals and was really taken by his energy and his enthusiasm and his skill. He has played with me, on and off, over the years and when I put this group together, I asked him to be a permanent member of it. He's got a wonderful range of ideas and concepts that he can draw from. He's got experience in so many areas of the music including the more popular forms, funk, hip-hop, and jazz and brings all these wonderful ideas, rhythms and beats to the music. Now the point about the music is that this music is custom developed for this group of people and that is another part of the jazz tradition that improvisers and the music that is written for them is very closely integrated. As the band has developed, the music has been more tailor made around the styles of the people and the concept of the group has been developing for the last three years.

FJ: Let's touch on your latest ECM recording, Prime Directive.

DAVE HOLLAND: I think this album really represents a step forward for the group in terms of its concepts and where it started from in the beginning with the first album, Points of View. It shows the maturing of the group and the developing of its character. I think the compositions reflect that character of the group. One of the things about writing for jazz musicians, Fred, is that we leave it very open ended in certain ways so that ideas that are brought in during rehearsals and performances have room to be included. So a piece may start off with one particular idea, but I think it is very important for the composer to be open minded too and to allow the music to grow in different ways and for the influence of those musicians that are playing it to be felt. Also, on this record, we have got compositions, one composition per musician that are in the group. I wrote five pieces for the album and then there are four other pieces, one each from the other four members. I think this also shows a variety of ways of looking at this group and the context that this group is working in.

FJ: Give me your website address.


FJ: Is this music accessible to a younger audience in this day and age?

DAVE HOLLAND: I think the music is accessible. We have found that our audience range in age from teenager and even younger sometimes, children that are brought by their parents, to the older generation. I am particularly encouraged by how many young people are coming to the concerts and who often travel great distances to be there. I think there is great interest amongst the younger people in this music. I think that there is a lot of them that are looking for interesting situations and music that is stimulating. I think that what is important is that the music be honest and direct and that it is relevant to today. I think music needs to be of its time and speak to that time. I think that is what we can do to bring the music to young people. I think one of the problems is that jazz is often thought of is just the term jazz is immediately intimidating to people. They think that this is going to be difficult music to listen to and I need all kinds of information before I can enjoy it. That is completely wrong. In fact, jazz has such a great feeling and great emotional content that it really doesn't require you to have technical understanding of it. I think you just have to allow your feelings to go with the music and you will find yourself carried along by it fairly quickly.

FJ: Jazz, like classical music, has a perception that it is the music of the elite.

DAVE HOLLAND: I think music can be many things to many people. I think it should exist on many levels. I think that music can exist on dance and rhythm and movement and at the same time, exist on a very high intellectual level. You can come to the music bringing whatever understanding you have and find something in it that you can connect with. That is one of the great things about Duke Ellington's music. It has all the complexity of great music and also all the fundamental rhythmic and melodic drive, which connected people to it. I don't think so much in categories of music. I know we have to use labels in order to talk about them, but at the same time, I don't like labels to compartmentalize it. I see it as all these different aspects of music. I think music is music. It is diverse, but it is just like people. We are all different shapes, sizes and colors, but basically we are all folks and we all need the same thing. Music is the same. I think it expresses the humanity of people.

FJ: What are you trying to express?

DAVE HOLLAND: One of the great aspects of improvised music is the collective aspect of it, the communion of it, the sharing of the creative thought as it is happening and the development of it together. That collective aspect, the dialogue, and the social aspect of it, Miles called it social music. He didn't like the word jazz. He called it social music. I think that is what this music is really about. It is about people and it is about people interacting and communicating on the highest levels.

Fred Jung is Editor-In-Chief and wishes California were Italy. Comments? Email him.