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This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the January 21, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Dave Holland, Bassist, Strikes a Balance
On his recent album, "Extended Play, Live at Birdland," a two-disc set on ECM Records, bassist and bandleader Dave Holland lets his band mates stretch out and improvise. In an interview from his home in Ulster County, New York, he says it’s a concept that has fascinated him throughout his long career.
Like the great small groups that Miles Davis led in the 1960s and ’70s, Holland hires veteran, virtuoso musicians and then is very generous in sharing the spotlight with them, encouraging them to show off their stuff. The British-raised Holland should know how to do this. He himself was handpicked by Davis to join his band – Holland’s first big break as a bassist was touring the U.S. with Miles Davis in 1968 and 1969.
The Dave Holland Quintet comes to McCarter Theater on Saturday, January 24, at 8 p.m., with guest pianist Jason Moran. Holland’s current quintet includes former New Brunswick resident Steve Nelson on vibes, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Chris Potter on saxophones, and Nate Smith on drums.
"Extended Play, Live at Birdland" opens appropriately with "The Balance," a 21-minute track that sets the tone for both discs. Of his live recording at Birdland, the famed, acoustically correct jazz club on West 44th Street in Manhattan, Holland says he worked with an engineer he has worked with for many years at ECM Records, a man familiar with the nuances of his music. The resulting sound will make you believe you have a front row table at the club, maybe half dozen feet from the stage.
"We’re finding a balance between structure and freedom," says Holland. "We’re in a setting that requires us to give the music a certain structure, yet we all have the freedom to stretch out and improvise. That’s been an interest of mine from the beginning. In jazz music, there are always lots of options and I’ve had a chance to explore some of them in my 40-odd years of playing."
What some would call "free jazz" or "avant-garde jazz" is balanced with more straight-ahead stylings on "The Balance," and all of the compositions on "Extended Play."
"There are all kinds of points in between those two extremes – structure and improvisation – that you can find, and that’s what’s always been interesting to me," the 57-year-old composer explains.
While it’s no easy road, starting your own group and leading your own band after many years as a sideman to famous musicians like Davis, Holland embarked on that very road in 1982. "We’d done three studio albums with this band and there were so many people asking, ‘When are you going to do a live album,’ we thought it would be a good idea to follow through with it," says Holland. "They just wanted to take home some of the energy they felt at live concerts, and it was a good time to put this project together, because we had our usual four-night engagement at Birdland." Normally, Birdland will have acts in for two or three nights, but rarely four nights. For Holland’s Quintet and his big band, the club makes an exception.
"Our aim was to have the production qualities be on the same level as our studio recordings, and James Farber, my engineer, knows my specific needs. We had a wonderful mobile unit parked outside the club with first-class equipment," he explains. "I’m really happy with the results, sound-wise, as well as musically. I wanted the album to have the attention to detail that you can get in the studio, in sound quality and resonance."
"Extended Play, Live at Birdland" also illustrates how some of Holland’s tunes have developed over the years.
"The great thing about having a working group is that these songs have gone through an evolution," he says. "So I thought, this time, given that it’s a live recording, let’s hear these things the way they would be played live, and really show the band stretching out and working without any time restrictions." "The Balance" on disc one is followed by "High Wire," "Jugglers Parade," "Make Believe," and "Free for All." There are just four compositions on disc two.
While Holland and his Quintet played to a packed jazz tent at last spring’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and were the headlining act the day they played, the road hasn’t always been so easy for the bandleader.
"This band has certainly had some wonderful receptions in the last seven years or eight years, but it’s been a long process of developing the music," he says. What’s unique, he argues, is the combination of people he has in his band as well as the conceptual approach taken to the music, written by himself and other members of his all-virtuoso ensemble.
Dave Holland was raised in Wolverhampton, England, near Birmingham, in the Midlands. He lived there until he was 17 when, in 1964, he moved to London.
"John Mayall and Alexis Korner and Georgie Fame and all kinds of amazing things were happening then with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones," Holland recalls. He began playing bass as a 13-year-old, but to a great extent, by the time he moved to London, he was obsessed with the sounds of jazz bassists like Ray Brown and Leroy Vinnegar. By the time he was 20, after attending the famed Guildhall Music School, he decided to focus his attention on playing jazz bass, as opposed to rock bass or blues bass.
"I was playing music in a Greek restaurant for a year and I went to Guildhall. Those three years, between 1965 and 1968, I played all over the jazz scene in London; I was basically a freelance musician doing all kinds of gigs. As my abilities on bass developed, jazz just got my attention and kind of took over," he recalls. By the time he was 20, despite his teacher’s urging to become affiliated with a classical orchestra, "I felt I needed to commit myself to something more fully, and after really thinking about it, I realized it was jazz."
After being encouraged to come to New York City – then and now the jazz capital of the world – by Jimmy Garrison, Jack DeJohnette, and other musicians he admired, Holland decided he was going to make a venture there by the fall of 1968.
"That was all circumvented by Miles Davis coming to London and hearing me play at Ronnie Scott’s club. So by August of 1968, I was in New York City, playing with Miles Davis."
"It certainly was the most high-profile gig I’d done up to that time. I mean Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, these were the guys we all waited for the next record to come out," he recalls.
"It was like you wanted to read the next episode of a novel. We’d all be waiting for these records to arrive in England. Miles was certainly one of those figures to us."
Holland was playing in the opening band behind a singer named Elaine Delmar at Ronnie Scott’s on a slate of shows with pianist Bill Evans. Davis came in one night early to hear Evans, Holland assumed. But Davis was impressed enough with Holland’s playing – "he was always listening to everyone" – to invite him to join his band in the U.S. for a late summer tour.
By 1970 Holland began a long relationship with ECM Records, a relationship that lasts to this day. He met ECM Records founder Manfred Eicher at a gig in Hamburg, Germany, in 1970, and "we’ve sort of grown together through the years. He’s very committed to quality and he’s trying to do something which is not just a commercial venture. He’s also trying to document and record music." Nothing from the ECM Records catalog is ever out of print, not unlike the late great Folkways label, run for many years by Moses Asch, but now run by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Since deciding to add the "bandleader" hat to his musical resume, Holland freely admits the road has not been easy. This is jazz, after all.
"It’s been a long journey but I’ve always valued the experience of apprenticeships as well as leadership," he says. He cites true innovators like Davis, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor as influences on his own bass playing and composing for small groups and big band. Holland’s 2002 ECM release with his big band, "What Goes Around," won a Grammy last February for "Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album."
"I started my own working band in 1982, and unless you have some extra and unusual circumstance, most people find it very rough in the beginning," he says. Holland started his own band after a yearlong bout and recovery from endocarditis, an infection in one of the heart valves. Although he was flat broke at the time with two young kids and living in Saugerties, New York, Holland and his wife, Claire, agreed that what he needed was to start his own quintet.
"You have to convince people of your integrity and convince promoters you can put people in the seats. It’s a process I’ve enjoyed – I haven’t regretted any of it," he adds.
After all, he argues, "in music, you don’t work in a vacuum, we feed off each other and new ideas are thrown around all the time. What interests me is the process, actively developing the music, and that’s something I’m still very much involved with."
At McCarter Holland says an audience unfamiliar with his idea of jazz will hopefully come away with a new appreciation for the broadness of the form. There are contemporary and funk and hip-hop rhythms that are used by his quintet, he notes. One jazz critic will call the music contemporary and another will call it cutting edge or avant-garde. To Holland, that’s all just an indication that the music can strike people in many different ways.
"I hope they’ll all leave the concert hall with a smile on their face and experience some joyful energy and the communal spirit," he says. "As a band, we’ve been playing together for a long time, and we have our own style. While we’re rooted in the tradition, at the same time we’re reaching forward and trying to expand on and develop that tradition."
– Richard J. Skelly
Dave Holland Quintet, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Dave Holland Quintet. With pianist Jason Moran. $32 to $38. Saturday, January 24, 8 p.m.
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