An Interview with Dave Holland
An Interview with
By Fred Jung
Haling from England, Dave Holland has become one of the premier bassists of our time. Having worked as the replacement to Ron Carter in Miles Davis’s group (Holland recorded Bitches Brew with Davis), Holland has a liberal pliability to his music and his playing, seemingly able to fit comfortably in any setting. Recording for ECM for almost three decades, Holland releases his eleventh studio recording for the European label entitled Points of View, a quintet session featuring trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonist Steve Wilson, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and drummer Billy Kilson. I had an opportunity to sit down with Holland on one of his few days off to talk about his new release, his life, and his music.
JazzUSA: What drew you to play jazz music?
DH: I came to jazz through popular music. I grew up in the Midlands area of England in a town called Wolverhampton. I started learning music by accompanying things I heard on the radio. I played a little bit of piano, string instruments, ukulele and guitar. I moved to electric bass when I was thirteen and we started a band, myself and a few other musicians, and played bass guitar in that when I was thirteen and turned professional when I was fifteen. During that period, I started listening to all kinds of different music. My ears were opening up. I guess the turning point for me was when I noticed in Downbeat, that Ray Brown was the number one bass player in its poll. I went out and bought a couple Ray Brown records. At the same time, I found a couple of records with the great Leroy Vinnegar on them too, and these four records I took home, and within a week I went out and bought myself an acoustic and started playing it because I was just completely inspired by what I heard. The sound that these gentlemen made and the music that they got out of the instrument. I have been influenced by lots of people, not just bass players. In my teenage years I investigated lots of different players and learned as much as I could from everybody that I came across. Obviously, I listened to some of the innovators on the instrument like Mingus, Jimmy Garrison, Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter with the Miles Davis group, I was listening to them. All these people I listened to as a bass player, but I was helped and influenced by the people I got to work with too. In London, I got to work with Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Joe Henderson, and other great players, as well as some great English musicians. I lived in London for four years and moved to the States and joined Miles Davis in 1968 and Miles had a great influence on me in terms of understanding the process of making music and different approaches that can be used to create a musical environment, within which great improvisers can work.
JazzUSA: Tell me about how you met Miles Davis.
DH: I was living in London in 1968 and I had been living there for about four years and working in all kinds of different areas on the music scene in London, particularly a lot of work playing jazz and that was my music of choice and what I found myself getting more and more involved in emotionally and I had planned that year to come to America in the fall probably, buy a ticket and just come to New York. I had met a number of people in New York and they encouraged me to come. In late July of that year, I was working at the Ronnie Scott Club in London and I was in the support band which featured a vocalist and a rhythm trio of piano, bass, drums, and we were the support band for the Bill Evans Trio, with Bill Evans on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Eddie Gomez on bass. During that engagement, Miles came to London and one night came into the club. I knew he was in the club, but I didn’t think very much of it, except I was honored that he would come to the club and thrilled that he was there, but I didn’t expect him to be listening to me very much. I thought he’d come to see Bill. I just got on with the job and as I was going on for my last set of the night, Philly Joe Jones, the drummer, who was living in London at the time, came up to the bandstand and said, ‘Dave, come over here. I have something to tell you. Miles wants you to join his band.’ Of course, I was quite, well, first of all, incredulous because I thought Philly was pulling my leg. I realized he was serious and so that’s how I got offered the job. I got a call about three weeks later from Miles’s agent saying if I could be in New York in three days and start working with Miles.
JazzUSA: What is your personal assessment of Miles Davis?
DH: I would say that Miles is a person of great focus and courage, who was not afraid to change and develop his music. He was always looking for new ways of expressing himself. He was a great leader in the sense that he led in a way of creating an environment and a vehicle for the musicians that he chose to be in his group to work in. At the same time, leading them in certain directions, and also gave them a lot of freedom to express themselves. So it was a leadership that was something where he enabled people to rise to the best that they could do. He was also very generous as a musician. The band was not about Miles only. It was his group and his concept, but you never had the feeling that he ever played a note that was purely for effect. It always had a musical purpose. He was very direct in his musical statement. He was happy to play his part and then step back and let everybody else in the group have a chance to develop their ideas. It was tremendously inspiring and an opportunity giving concert situation.
JazzUSA: You spoke of how Miles developed and changed his music, is it important at this stage in your career to explore new avenues?
DH: I would say it was important, but it is more just a matter of how I perceive with what I do. I think anybody that’s involved in something in the way that we’re involved with music, it’s a continuing kind of discovery that’s going on for yourself as well, and that process is one of the things that keeps it interesting and inspiring to the musician after many years of doing it. It’s one of the things that I saw with Miles. He always had this enthusiasm and he always had something on his mind, listening to it. It might not be jazz, it could be any kind of music that he heard that was interesting. This kind of openness and interest that he had is what fed his music and what kept it vital and relevant, not just to the music and the history of music, but to himself personally. To me, I don’t think of it as concentrating on just developing it. It just becomes a way of how you approach your music. That each day is a day of discovery. That you try to move a little further along then the day before and develop the ideas that you had worked on and try to move them along. The thing that I remember hearing that sort of stuck with me was Coltrane in an interview once said that he would be happy if he could play one new thing a day, or have a new idea each day, and after a year he would have 365 new ideas, which would really help and develop his music. I think of incremental development, not just large, huge leaps. I don’t think it works that way for most people. Even in Miles’s music, you see the records as they appear. They represent also between the records, a period of development, and having spent some time in the band, and anybody that worked with Miles would probably say the same thing. That every night was a constant picking up from the night before and moving the music along, and as that happens, consequently over time, you have these changes. But, if you sit at home trying to think, ‘Well, my goodness, how can I make change happen in my music?’ You will get swamped by the big picture. It’s really about just investigating, day by day, working on the music, developing it.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your new ECM release, Points of View.
DH: I’ll start with Robin Eubanks. Robin and I have probably known each other for the longest time out of all the people in the group. Robin was in a group of mine in 1987, a quintet, and we worked together for a period of time then. We’ve done a few things on and off in the subsequent years and when I put this new group together in the summer of ’97. I wanted to move on from the quartet project that I had done prior to this and I wanted to go back and have the opportunity to write for two horns and develop that aspect of the composition, as well as increase the dialogue and the interaction that happens when you have two horns in a band. Robin is a great player. He has got a wonderful, wonderful sound on the trombone, big and has many different colors that he can draw on. But, he’s also a musician whose battled a wide range of music, from funk to jazz and a lot of other points in between. And he brings also a great tone in composition so we were able to feature one of his songs on the recent album.
Steve Wilson, the alto player, is somebody that I met a few years ago and I had heard him play in a number of situations. We actually recorded an album with Billy Childs, the piano player together. Billy did a very nice album. Steve appeared on it. It’s called a child within. I really love Steve’s sound and his musicianship and his abilities and again, his range. Something I look for in musicians is a broad range of expression, so we can explore a lot of different areas in music. And I think at the root of it all has a lot to do with the jazz traditions, so I’m looking for musicians who have that as a sort of foundation.
Steve Nelson, who was in my last group, great vibraphone player. He has an economist style which is very nice because it keeps the harmonic aspects of the music. He gets a great sound, is a very powerful player, but at the same time very thoughtful and he’s a great thinker in the music. He comes up with some great thoughts and ways to deal with compositions and things which is always interesting. And the instrument itself, the vibraphone, I like very much for its texture and the percussion quality of the vibraphone. The way it can interact in the rhythm section and the sparseness of its harmonic voicing because the limitations of mallets. So you never have a harmonic voicing of more than four notes, so it keeps a very open sounding harmonic basis for the music.
Finally, Billy Kilson, that I met about ten years ago in Boston, in the big band project that I was doing up there. I always loved Billy’s playing. He’s another musician who has a very wide range of sound and dynamics. He always keeps things cooking when he’s playing too, which is great. There’s always motion happening. He keeps moving the music along. I’ve really gotten to love playing with Billy. He’s really fun to play with and a great musical personality.
That’s the kind of band I’m looking for. We now have Chris Potter in the band, who has now taken over for Steve Wilson. Chris is a tenor player, who plays also alto and soprano, so we now have a tenor voice in the group as well, which is giving us some new opportunities.
That’s the group I will be touring with on the West Coast.
JazzUSA: Being of English decent, you have a unique perspective to the music that is being generated outside of the States. Describe to me the difference that you see in the jazz scene domestically and overseas.
DH: I would say the audience itself does not change very much other than some slight cultural variations and how they express themselves at concerts. I think that the fans, the people that love this music, who have truly been moved by this music are very similar wherever you go. The audiences in Japan respond differently than audiences in Italy in terms of the ways of showing their enjoyment. But there is something fundamentally, I feel it is the same. It is one of the reassuring things that you have traveling around. You come to realize that in essence all people have similar emotional ways of expressing and are looking for the same thing, in a sense from our music, which is a sense of being transported into something. Something which takes them on a journey. Something that takes them outside of themselves and to another world. So, I find in a lot of ways those things are similar. Now what is different is the business and the cultural way of relating to it in terms of the institutions. I would say there is more support coming from the governments and municipal authorities in Europe and different places, I think than you find in America. It’s very much competing in the marketplace in America. There’s not as much support, not just in jazz, but for the arts in general coming from public money. And that’s rather unfortunate in many ways because it means that only certain areas of the country get the music. It is not taken to the people. We find ourselves in Italy sometimes in a very small town playing to practically the whole town, old people, young people coming to hear the music and this is sponsored by the town. It’s something they have pride in doing. They feel that they’re doing the community a service, bringing the music there. I would like to see a little bit more of it moving in that direction in America. The other thing I would say is the educational aspect. I think we really need to think about what musical education will be in the country. I think there is a lot of good teachers. I think there are people really trying hard to make the best of what they have to work with. As I heard one musician say, that we talk about it as musical appreciation when you go to school and take music, but you don’t talk about math appreciation or English appreciation. In other words, we need an active music involvement from people, not to necessarily make them into professional musicians, but to have them share in the experience of making music.
JazzUSA: If there were something else you could do to help get the music to the people, what would that contribution be?
DH: I would like to see centers in cities that are created as a meeting place for musicians to get together with their ideas. That would be my sort of idea because I know how much of a difference one place makes in a community where that can happen. Where there’s a place, a safe place where you could go to work out your ideas and share them with other people and to pull the resources. So much comes out of that when that happens. You see in the history of this music, time and time again, when there’s been a place that have focused the musicians and focused the music and that’s when we find these extraordinary things.
JazzUSA: What can audiences expect from Dave Holland in the future?
DH: More work with my group at this point. I have really made a priority of it at this time. It’s something that I am very enthusiastic about this particular group. I want to take whatever opportunities I have to work with it and at the moment we seem to be getting quite a few. We’re going to China right after the tour finishes for four concerts in mainland China, which is a very exciting prospect. We have more touring in the States and in Europe next year. I have a couple of other projects that I’m doing, one is with an Arabic musician from Tunisa and another English musician. We have a trio that recorded a record on ECM. I’m getting ready to leave Wednesday for a ten-day tour of Europe with that group. So that’s a very interesting project for me because it leads me to some other areas of music. They are both fantastic musicians. That’s a very special project that I would like to make some time for.
JazzUSA: Are you interested in doing a world music project or a classical music project?
DH: I’m interested in it as much as there’s a meeting place for it to happen. I’m not so interested in situations where there is a way of forcing these things together. The genres are being put together in a way that neither one really fulfills its promise. On the other hand, at the moment, I am working on a project that will involve a commission that’s been given to Billy Childs to write a piece for bass and chamber orchestra, to celebrate the chamber orchestra. So I’m hoping to do something like that, but that involves Billy’s writing which is very expressional. He has a way of uniting the traditional orchestral setting with an improvisational spirit and setting for a jazz musician to work in. I am very concentrated on doing work with my group. One of things about being a composer/improviser is that you find an interaction happening between your writing and your playing, which is very stimulating. You try to write compositions which will take your playing into certain areas that you try to develop. As you develop those areas, then new ideas come up, which you can then write into new compositions. So there is a symbiotic relationship between those two things which I find very interesting.
JazzUSA: What inspires you?
DH: Humanity, I think most of all, I don’t mean to sound glib, but I think in the grand scale of things, the things that inspire me is the nobleness of the human spirit and nature and the continuity of that. I look for inspiration, obviously from musical sources, but I think as I get older, more and more I see music and life being connected. In the end, as I was told by senior musicians when I was a young musician, music needs to tell a story of some kind. You need to have a story to tell. You need experiences in your life which you can bring forth in the music. That whole process is one that I think most creative artists draw from in the long term.
JazzUSA: What would you like audiences to take away from your music?
DH: I would like them to have fun because I think music is entirely about that. I want their experience to be emotional as well as cerebral. I would like to have music that could be in jazz on many different levels, so that the novice listener could come in and enjoy it, enjoy the melodies and the rhythm. And the more sophisticated and experienced listener, perhaps a musician can enjoy it also for the interest of the workings of the music and the way the language is developed. My example I take inspiration from is for that is Duke Ellington. Duke’s music always had those elements going on simultaneously, complexity and simplicity. And that’s why it reached so many people and moved so many people. So if I could do just a fraction of that, I would be very happy.
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