Jazz bassist Dave Holland has played with many of the luminaries of the music—such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk—in his forty-five year career. He is not a musician that sits still and rests on his past accomplishments, however. He’s always looking for new musicians and sounds to bring his ideas to light. His current group, The Overtone Quartet, is no exception. This group features saxophonist Chris Potter, widely considered to be one of the most influential players on the instrument today. In addition, the band is composed of the outstanding players Jason Moran on piano and Eric Harland on drums. The band will be playing on October 4th as part of the Cornell Concert Series. This performance is an amazing opportunity to see a jazz legend who still pushes himself and surrounds himself with world-class players. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to talk with Dave Holland by phone last week.
Tompkins Weekly: You got your start in the US in 1968, playing with Miles Davis. What was it like to play with him in groups that included Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJonhette—huge players in Jazz?
Dave Holland: Well, it was really a pretty extraordinary opportunity for me to come to America at the age of twenty-one and join Miles Davis’s group. It was an extraordinary chance for me to come to America, which I’d planned on doing anyway, but I didn’t think I would come with a gig of that magnitude in my pocket. So it was pretty extraordinary . . . and a little overwhelming. Of course, just coming to America was somewhat of a cultural shock. Even though we speak the same language, British culture and American culture is very different. And politically there was a lot going on in ’68 and so it was pretty much an overload of new experiences and new things to understand and take in. And a part of that, of course, was to learn how to work with Miles and the group and to make a contribution.
TW: What was the jazz scene like growing up in the UK?
DH: My experiences there were really, really good. I moved to London in ’64 and prior to that I hadn’t done a lot of jazz playing. I’d worked more in rock and roll bands. I turned professional when I was fifteen, but I’d been in a band since I was thirteen. And then I started playing acoustic bass, just practicing at home when I was fifteen or sixteen, and practicing with records. But I didn’t really start performing jazz until I moved to London. And it was a really healthy scene in London in the ’60s and it got even healthier in 1966 when there was a club opened called The Old Place, which was the old location of the Ronnie Scott Club, after he’d moved it to the new place where he’s at now. He let us use that club for rehearsals and several nights a week of putting on music. All the young musicians in London had a wonderful venue to work in and to develop and to have as a meeting place. So a lot of things happened during that period that were wonderful—a lot of creative energy going on and different schools of thought for areas and directions of music. And I was right in the middle of it all. As well as going to conservatory during the day and studying classical music as well, as a student.
TW: What drew you to the bass?
DH: You know . . . it was probably circumstances. I was in my first band when I was thirteen and it had three guitars and a drummer and a singer. And we decided we needed a bass player. And I volunteered. And as soon as I started, I got a bass guitar and I started playing, and I loved it right away. I just felt something about the character of the instrument, and you know, I was mostly just a chord player, a rhythm player as a guitarist, and this was just more interesting and it suited me and my personality. And then I got started, of course, listening to bass players and I eventually found some great jazz bass players to listen to and that’s really what propelled me into working on the acoustic bass and to study jazz.
TW: Who do you consider to be your influences?
DH: The early influence were really Ray Brown and Leroy Vinnegar. They were, you know, my first jazz records. They were records I bought because . . . I went to look for some Ray Brown records because I’d seen his name in the polls and knew that he was highly regarded and I thought, I’ll go and check that out. And while I was at the record store I found some LPs with a picture of a bass player on the front and he’d made two records and it was Leroy Vinnegar. And I bought those two records and that was my starting collection for records to practice with.
TW: What was it like to play on seminal recordings such as “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew?” "Bitches Brew" was such a game changer when it came out.
DH: Yeah, you know all the recordings in that period I was with Miles, we sort of did in the periods when we were in New York, between touring. And Miles would usually call a recording session at some point during the time we were in New York. And we didn’t know which record was going to go down. We didn’t necessarily record all the music for a particular record at once. He had an ongoing access to the recording studio with Columbia [Records] and we just went in and did whatever he had on his mind at the time. Sometimes we’d just go in a play a couple of things and spend an afternoon in the studio, sometimes three days. So when you say the albums it was more just working on recording and recording ideas that Miles had and then they would eventually be selected and be put together for an album. There was quite a lot of editing that went on and post-production work on the recordings.
TW: What are the musical standouts in your career?
DH: Well, you know, I have to sort of think about what I’m doing today as much as anything. I feel extraordinarily privileged to be in a position to be doing my own projects and also doing the projects I occasionally do with other people. Obviously the things that stand out and are memorable are working with Miles, with Monk [Thelonious Monk], with Betty Carter . . . and Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton. I’ve had some great associations over the last forty-five years. Jack DeJohnette has been a great friend and companion and associate in the music. So the list goes on. I hate making lists because I always forget people. But over a long period of time I’ve had some great experiences. But I pretty much value a lot the things I’m doing at the moment. And for the last fourteen years, thirteen going on fourteen, I’ve had a quintet that’s been extraordinarily productive and creatively positive. And that still continues. And then I’ve had several other projects I’ve started—a big band project that started in 2000, which we did two Grammy winning records with. And my most recent recording, which will be out within the next month or so is an octet. I did a sextet recording last year. So all these projects are the things I feel so fortunate to do—things that are relevant to me at the moment.
TW: I saw you in 1990 at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival with Pat Metheny, Jack DeJohnette, and Herbie Hancock.
DH: I remember that.
TW: It was great. I’d just graduated from High School. Is there anyone you haven’t collaborated with that you would like to?
DH: Well there’s a lot of people that I haven’t played with, you know, but I’m pretty happy with what’s going on right now.
TW: Many of your bands as a leader have used saxophone—Steve Wilson, Steve Coleman, and now Chris Potter—as the lead voice. Are you particularly drawn to the saxophone as a voice?
DH: It works in some groups. It has more to do with the players, is generally why I use the instrument rather than the instrument itself, although that has something to do with it. I’m much more interested in finding musicians whose approach I like, and who I feel would be somebody that we could work well together, and who are good listeners. and have the reference points in their music that seem to work in the kind of approaches that I’m taking in the music. So that’s my primary thing and, of course, the sextet record last year, “Pass It On,” had three horns—Trumpet, Saxophone, and Trombone—as did my first quintet that I started in ’82. So it’s not something that’s always the case, but I can see how you can look at my work and say how there’s a lot of saxophone lead players there. But it hasn’t been so much a conscious thing as I have people who I admire and I want to be part of the music.
TW: Your recent groups have included a quintet, sextet, quartet, and big band. Do you approach writing and arranging differently depending on the make up of the group?
DH: It factors in very much with composing and arranging because when you have a particular size group you have to consider the sound of the group and the instrumentation. And, of course, the personalities of the musicians and accommodating those in the music and finding musical vehicles for them to play, which will really give them the full opportunity to use their creative ideas. So I take into consideration a lot who I’m writing for and certainly the instrumentation of the group suggests certain ways to use the groups. In a quartet setting it’s more bare bones and the music can be written with a lot of space to be filled in by the players. And when you start to work with larger groups—quintets, sextets, octets, and big bands—then you, I like to anyway, take advantage of the orchestrational possibilities that those groups offer and to write passages using that instrumentation—backgrounds, and transition passages or what ever comes to mind. So it does influence my writing, what size group I’m writing for.
TW: Your band consists of some of the best young players in jazz. Do you feel you have a role in working with younger musicians?
DH: I think it’s a role that has been in the music ever since the beginning. You know, it’s a generational thing. I benefited from it as a young musician. It’s part of the tradition, that young players have a chance to develop in a larger group. Also, the older players have a chance to plug into the new ideas that the younger players are bringing to the table and the energy that they’re bringing in. So it’s a very mutually beneficial situation. And, as I said, it’s been a part of the tradition from the early days when King Oliver invited Louis Armstrong to his band.
TW: For your Cornell Concert, Steve Nelson on vibes is filling in for piano. Is there a difference in the band switching those instruments?
DH: Certainly I’m going to be selecting music for the concert that will really utilize, to the full extent, the potential of what Steve brings with him as a musician and with the sound he makes on the instrument. Certain compositions will be written specifically for piano. Other compositions I’ve written in the past, I’ve written for Steve Nelson to play and utilize the vibes and marimba, which are quite unique sounding instruments and give a unique sound to the group. So in that respect, obviously, the change of the player is one thing and the change of instrument is another. We’ll be selecting music that will suite the instrumentation that we’re bringing.
TW: Who is inspiring you now? Who are you listening to that’s really getting you excited?
DH: Well, one of the things I’m listening to is flamenco music because I’ve been involved in a Flamenco project for the last two years. We just finished recording it earlier this year. It was with some Spanish Gypsy musicians. Pepe Habichuela is the sort of main guitarist and patriarch of the family. And so I’ve been listening to quite a lot to Flamenco music, going back to the early recordings in the ’20s and ’30s, to educate myself and to learn about that music.
I listen to a wide range of things. I was listening to [Duke] Ellington last night. I listen to contemporary music—rap and hip hop and R&B. I listen to jazz, of course, classical music, world music. I’m just a music fan and I like to listen to a broad range of music. Sometimes I’m not listening to anything. I’m just keeping my ears clear of really sitting down and listening to music. For one reason or another, that’s how it is sometimes. So at different periods I’ll be listening to different things.
TW: Great. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
DH: You’re very welcome. See you at the concert.
TW: You bet. I’m excited to be there.
DH: Great. Thank You Very Much.