It’s hard to think of a jazz musician who has been more consistently productive and creative over the last 40 years than bassist Dave Holland. Holland came to the United States from England in 1968 specifically to work with Miles Davis—not a bad start to the jazz career of an unknown. From there he went on to play with Chick Corea, Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, Stan Getz, Pat Metheny and many others, not to mention folks like Bonnie Raitt. Holland got around.
In 1972, Holland recorded his first disc as a leader, the legendary Conference of the Birds on ECM, a record that still stands as visionary, dazzling, and essential. A decade later he started leading his own bands consistently, demonstrating facility as a composer and arranger as well as a player. In the mid-‘90s he formed his quintet with Chris Potter (saxophones), Robin Eubanks (trombone), Steve Nelson (vibes) and various drummers whom still work together to this day. In addition he leads a big band, a sextet, and now an octet, the debut recording of which (Pathways) just came out on Holland’s own Dare2 label.
In short: whew. Holland is the embodiment of “prolific”. He managed to squeeze in some time to talk with PopMatters about his new band, his new label, his feelings about appearing in jazz “super groups”, and the importance of building jazz out of individual sounds.
Tell us about putting together the band for your latest recording, Pathways.
I assembled the octet ten years ago for a tour of the UK sponsored by the Arts Council. For the tour I wanted to build on the core nucleus of my quintet. The quintet had been playing together for quite a few years even in 2000-2001. The other players in the band—Gary Smulyan, Antonio Hart and Alex Sipiagin—had all been members of the big band I had started in 2000, so I had already been playing with them and really liked their work.
As far as the instrumentation of the band goes, I wanted something bigger than the quintet but not as big and complex as a big band. I wanted to have compositional options for the arrangements and orchestrations, but without the complexity. It gives me the chance to have the octet still function as a small group but with the compositional possibilities. It allows it to function as a small group but with the orchestral possibilities of a large group.
In choosing the individual players, I was looking for several things. Their individuality and personal approach to the music counts for a lot. I’m always looking for players who have an individual voice as these people do, but it’s also important that the players be able to work together with a collective spirit. This has always been a big part of my approach to music.
What I love about this music is the celebration of the collective spirit that happens in jazz. When I’m thinking about a band, I want a diversity of approaches—I’m looking for players who have a variety of voices so we can create a multi-dimensional sound in the music. You want to have this play of personalities. Then I want to be able to frame those personalities with the choice of compositions
Photo credit: ©Jan Kricke
This new band uses the rhythm section from the quintet with Steve Nelson on vibes. Why did you choose vibes rather than the piano, as in your sextet, particularly since you have said that the Octet evokes for you the sound of the Ellington small bands?
Steve Nelson is a unique musician on so many levels. The reason I chose a vibraphone for the band is because I love the way Steve uses it. It really came out of working with Steve in the early ‘90s and realizing that this was a man I wanted to work more with, to create music with. He and I have been playing together since 1993 or ‘94. As far as the question about the sextet with Mulgrew Miller on piano, I have very rarely used a piano in my group.
The sextet came out of specifically wanting to play with Mulgrew. We had played on a few occasions together, but I wanted to develop something more with him. I also had not worked with drummer Eric Harland very much, but he interested me a great deal. The sextet allowed me this specific rhythm section, and it allowed me to change up the sound of the front line of the group from the quintet’s tenor and trombone to a sound I used my early quintets front line of alto, trumpet and trombone. So it gave me another setting.
In recent years I’ve been interested in documenting some variety of sounds in my work. For a long time I was concentrating on just one thing (the quintet, which was very important for me), but in the last few years—especially since I’ve had my own record label—I’ve wanted to get a variety of sounds in the catalog.
Your use of vibes in rhythm sections seems like a way of embracing a certain transparency or freedom in the music. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes. Even before the quintet, I had a quartet with Kevin Eubanks in the late ‘80s. That was, again, because of the way Kevin played, but the guitar also provided the sparse of voicing and openness that I like.
Since the ‘80s my music has changed. I’ve felt more of a need to include a chordal instrument, and the music I’ve been writing since 1989 has required it.
Can you talk about the thinking you do about “freedom” in your band?
I will put it this way. I like the combination of simple and complex. I think that is represented in lots of music I enjoy. Ellington and Strayhorn are great examples. Their tunes had really distinctive melodies that stuck in your head but those melodies were often supported by great complexity of harmony and arrangement, but you never felt intimidated by that. You always felt something that would draw you in, and that often was the melodic and emotional contents, as well as the rhythmic content and the feel.
Something could always draw you in. These things can carry all different degrees of the complexity. My music deals with various things that could be called complex such as different time signatures. But my goal is not to make the music sound complex—I’d like people to feelt hat the music can be experienced on many levels, that you can come to regardless of your experience as a listener. Whether you have followed the whole history of the music or if you are a new listener, there should be “ways in”.
You played with Miles Davis during a time when he was certainly creating music that was simultaneously simple and complex. Can you talk about how the years with Miles fits into this impulse for complex simplicity?
I can’t speak to all his motivations but, just from my experience, Miles always wanted his music to be relevant to the times he was playing it in—he didn’t want the music to become a museum piece. So for that reason he was always trying to move forward. Of course, there were always people who wanted him to play the ways he used, like he did in the ‘50s or whatever. He would say, “Look, listen to the records. I’m movin’ on; I’ve got something else to do.”
That was a great inspiration to me. Coltrane, Ellington, Davis—these were people who were not satisfied to sit still—and there was good reason for it. I would feel jaded if I had to keep playing the same way I did 30 or 40 years ago. Creativity is an ongoing thing for me, and I’m trying to continue it as I get older and find new ways. I’ve done certain things in the past and I want to move on from that and try something different.
You now have your own record, Dare2, after a long and fruitful association with ECM. How did that come about?
My time with ECM was wonderful. It was a great opportunity for me to document everything I wanted to at a time when, frankly, a lot of major labels were not interested. I was still developing as a bandleader and as an individual and Manfred Eicher heard some possibilities and gave me a chance to record. It was great.
There was something in the back of mind, however, that someday I would like to have some independence and develop my own platform for recording and keep ownership of the masters. I proposed this to ECM at some point, but it was not something that Eicher could do.
There was an opportunity that came up in 2003 to give me a place to do this. So I moved ahead. The advantages for me are in having more control over what happens to the work—how it is released, when it is released, the format. This gives me a business model that takes advantage of the new ways to market and distribute, particularly through the Internet—building a more direct relationship with the people who are listening to the music.
In the past it was hard to get distribution in the town where you playing. Now you can work around that. These days there just aren’t that many record stores, but people can get the recording through their computers.
The octet recording is outstanding. What is next for you and for your record label?
We are just about to do some quintet work in the US, and we’re about to take the band to Europe. I have a big band performance at Hollywood bowl in the summer. Also, I’ve been working for three years with a group of Flamenco musicians that will be the next recording on Dare2. I spent three years as a student working with a flamenco guitarist, Pepe Habichuela. On the recording, we played a couple of my compositions, but mostly fandangos, tangos, rumbas, and so on that were written by Pepe.
You have a history of leading your own groups but also appearing in other bands with well-known musicians at festivals and on tours. This seems like a savvy career balance that keeps your profile high.
It’s important for me from a creative point of view to have new experiences. I’m not interest in “super groups” as such. I’m interested in playing with great players whom I’ve known for a long time. For example, the group with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Brian Blade, you could say that’s a super group, but it’s also a group of people who have built up a strong relationship for a long time.
That’s what is important to me. I’m not interested in having somebody calling me to just put together a group that just mixes and matches various people.
I want to be clear that my prime motivation is musical. I don’t choose a project unless it is musically meaningful for me. If it happens to be with an unknown person, fine. If it happens to be with somebody who’s very famous and has a bigger audience than me, fine too. The business follows the music, not the other way around.