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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 8

Dave Holland : Basso Nobile

by Marc Chénard / May 20, 2011

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There’s an old joke that goes like this:

There once was an aging couple that hadn’t uttered a word to each other for years. Family and friends tried to get them talking, to no avail. One day, a musician brought a bandmate to play his bass for them. And — presto! Within seconds, they were chatting away. So it just goes to show you: everyone talks during a bass solo!

But when Dave Holland launches into one of his own, the exact opposite happens: audiences hold their breaths as the sounds seemingly gush out of his double bass, with occasional gasps of wonderment greeting one or another of his virtuosic turns. As one of the most acclaimed jazzmen of our times, his work as composer and bandleader has been duly acknowledged by two Grammy awards, both earned in the last decade. For over 25 years, he has produced a string of sterling releases under his own name, first for the prestigious ECM label, but more recently on his own imprint, Dare2 Records.

A face familiar to Canadian festival-goers, in particular those in Montreal who have witnessed his prowess on numerous occasions, Holland will be gracing our city in late June as an invited guest of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal (FIJM). (See show listing at end of this article.)

Back to the 60s: London calling… and Miles too
For this native Englishman and longtime Stateside resident, 2011 marks both his 50th year as a professional musician, and, as of October first (which happens to be International Music Day), also the 65th year of his remarkable life. A native son of Wolverhampton, in the heart of the aging industrial Midlands, the bassist flew the coop in 1964 to pursue his budding career in London. But fate would fly him to the States a scant four years later when he received a fairytale-like invitation from Miles Davis to join his band in New York. There he was, after three days' notice, in the studio, recording the trumpeter’s Filles de Kilimanjaro. Thus auspiciously began his two-year tenure with Davis, which itself began his incredible American musical journey. Asked about that stroke of luck during a recent phone conversation from his Upstate New York home, he recalls the circumstances vividly: “I was working in a backup band with a singer at Ronnie Scott’s club, and we were splitting a bill with the Bill Evans trio. Miles dropped in, and between two sets his former drummer Philly Joe Jones passed on the message to me. But when I got off, he had left, and I missed him the next morning at his hotel, as he had checked out and was on his way back to New York. Three weeks later, his agent called, informing me I had to be there in three days. That’s when I met him for the first time, in the studio.” In retrospect the bassist considers that wait a good thing, given his busy working schedule and his final term of study at the Guildhall School of Music.

While the bass and jazz have been synonymous with Dave Holland's name for all of his adult life, the same cannot be said of his early years. “There were no musicians in my family,” he notes, “but my uncle brought a ukelele home and started strumming some chords. I wanted him to show me, so that’s how I picked up my first things, and I was just five years old then. There was a piano, too; my mother and grandmother sang songs from sheet music, so I began to pick out tunes with it.” On his tenth birthday he received a guitar and started to play rock and roll with two other guitarists, a singer and drummer. When they realized the group needed a bass, he volunteered. Two years later, he finally made up his mind that music was his calling, so he quit school and turned pro. But popular music meant more to him than just work: “For kids like myself, music was like a ticket to ride, a way out of that dreadful working environment and rigid class system.”

Then in London, and playing at a Greek restaurant, he starting taking weekly lessons with one of the BBC Symphony players. At his teacher’s behest, he enrolled at Guildhall, supported by a scholarship. During those heady days, Holland was getting involved in the burgeoning free music scene, spearheaded by the late drummer John Stevens and guitarist Derek Bailey, with Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Trevor Watts, and Canadian expatriate Kenny Wheeler. From that sporadically documented era emerged the recording Karyobin, an album that has truly stood the test of time as a ‘European Free Jazz classic.’

Into the 70s: New York Dues and Woodstock Blues
Call it Karma or just plain luck, but the invitation from Miles occurred at a time when he yearned to give the Jazz Mecca a try, at least for a time. “I had been out of the country only once before that,” he recalls, “and being there at that time was a real eye-opener. There was a cultural revolution going on then: you had the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement coming to a head, then the political assassinations, so it was such an incredibly intense period. Sure, the language was the same, but I was learning a new culture as well as finding my way around and making contacts.”

By the end of his tenure with Miles, things would move quickly for Holland. At first, he teamed up with the now unlikely combination of Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschull in the now legendary but short lived band Circle, which escaped to Europe for half a year due to a chronic lack of work back home. Once back in the Apple, the pianist would drop out and the resultant trio would be joined by the energetic reedist Sam Rivers for what would turn out to be Holland’s first foray as a leader, and certainly his first undisputed masterwork, Conference of the Birds. Around that same time, he would cross paths with a fellow European expatriate, German vibist and sometime pianist Karl Berger, a musician who would enable the bassist to develop another vocation, that of music educator. “The Creative Music Studio (CMS) Karl set up in Woodstock was a fantastic experience for all involved, even if it was hard to sustain and survived on a shoestring budget until it succumbed late in the decade. You see, we had people like Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Jack De Johnette, and Ornette Coleman as part of the faculty; they were all active professionals, so it gave me a real chance to think of education in different terms.”

Through the 80s: from Banff Leader to Band Leader
With a new decade dawning, opportunity would smile on Dave Holland again, as he was hired to become part of the teaching staff at the blossoming Banff School of Music in Alberta. At first, he went with Berger to see if the CMS could find a new home there, but nothing came of it. Instead, Holland would join the faculty in 1981, and direct its jazz program till decade’s end, bowing out eventually to concentrate on his steadily growing commitments as composer and bandleader. In 1983, these twin pursuits jelled for the bassist as he decided to create his first working unit with old friend Kenny Wheeler, veteran trombonist Julian Priester, and the then budding altoist Steve Coleman. A year later, his newborn quintet, its original drummer being Steve Ellington, made its auspicious recording debut with Jumpin’ In (on ECM), further strengthening an already close working relationship with producer Manfred Eicher.

Though his sideman credentials were immaculate, assuming bandleader status was no cinch for him. “To be really honest, it was really a struggle to get there,” he avers. “And I think most musicians find that out when they start their own band. You might have all of the credibility behind you as a sideman, but starting up your own band is like starting all over again. You have to prove your band is worthy of booking and capable of recording, too. That group was a turning point for me, and I’ve kept that up ever since.”

Though his personal projects and recordings are his lifeline, he has never given up on his teaching. Back in the 80s, he took a full-time teaching position at Boston’s New England Conservatory for two years; nowadays, he benefits from an artist in residence status at that same institution as well as at the University of Birmingham in England. This arrangement enables him to spend a week per semester at each school, where he lectures and prepares ensembles for concerts of his works. Just recently, he added another feather to his cap by accepting a similar offer from the University of Miami. Musing on his long experience in the field, and having once expressed his concern regarding a certain uniform method of teaching, Holland is happy to report that today's teachers increasingly promote the individuality of their students.

“A lot of encouragement needs to be given in terms of finding personal musical solutions and looking at a wide array of individual approaches to music making rather than trying to find a standardized thing. That is now happening in the education field, and certainly a lot of schools I’ve been to are now following that idea.”

From the 90s to Now
Clearly, the muse has treated Dave Holland rather well, but he’s worked hard to make the most of his opportunities. Certainly, he lets his art speak for itself, both onstage and off. With such stalwarts as Chris Potter, Robin Eubanks, Steve Nelson and Nate Smith in his current quintet, the leader says that his main inspiration is his team. As a player, nothing seems beyond his reach technically. Somewhat forgotten now are his forays on cello, including a solo recording, but his growing commitments forced him to put it down in 1984, though he admits to pulling it out at home on occasion. As a composer, he owes a debt to “several lineages,” one of which includes past masters from Ellington to Mingus, while another includes such luminaries as Ornette, Braxton, and Shorter.

In 2004, Dave Holland set up his own label, Dare2 Records. Considering the highly successful tenure he had with ECM, this move may seem surprising. Asked about his reasons, he claims it was mainly a question of gaining control over his output. “It had to do with ownership of the masters,” he states, “an issue that had been on my mind for some time.
I wanted to make that transition from licensing agreements to full ownership, but I couldn’t reach a deal. But there’s another reason, too, which is the rapidly changing market. At first, my manager (his daughter Louise) negotiated an international distribution deal with Universal France, but three years ago we decided to go with two companies on the digital distribution end and the production of recordings respectively. That same year, after the first Grammy for my big band album, we had another one in the can, so I found it was the right moment to go for it, which for the time being exclusively documents my projects.”

At the Montreal Jazz Festival: » 28.06: w/ Kenny Barron » 29.06: Dave Holland Quintet » 30.06: w/ Anouar Brahem (oud) John Surman (baritone and soprano sax); Invitation series, Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, 8 p.m.

Recommended listening
» Karyobin, 1968 (Paratactile)
» Conference of the Birds, 1973 (ECM)
» Emerald Tears, 1977 (solo bass) (ECM)
» Jumpin’ In, 1983 (ECM)
» Extended Play, 2003 (ECM)
» Overtime (Big Band), 2005 (Dare2)
» Pathways (octet), 2010 (Dare2)
Latest recording
» Hands (+ Pepe Habichuela), 2010 (Dare2)

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