Holland and the Working Band

Holland and the Working Band

by James Hale

copyright © 2002 James Hale

Economics and ego have combined to all but kill the concept of the top-level working band in jazz. Long gone are the days when musicians the calibre of John Coltrane or Miles Davis led groups that stayed together and developed rapport and repertoire for four or five years. No jazz musician can afford to keep a band stable for long periods of time, and the 'young lion' syndrome -- fed by star-hungry record labels -- encourages good players to become bandleaders in their early 20s.

At least, that's the prevailing thinking. Dave Holland would beg to differ. The quintet the 55-year-old bassist leads has been together for four years with the same personnel: saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibist Steve Nelson and drummer Billy Kilson. Potter and Eubanks both currently lead their own bands, and all four are in constant demand to record and tour with other musicians, yet they choose to stay with Holland.

For Potter, the choice is an obvious one. "Dave is a tremendous leader, and one of the big reasons I'm committed to his band is that he enables you to grow as a musician. He encourages you to do what you do and to go beyond that. He doesn't try to control the music, and it's a real joy to be creative in that kind of environment."

Holland, a soft-spoken but forthright man, is quick to credit the musician he says inspired him to be the bandleader he is today: Miles Davis. The bassist was 21 when the legendary trumpeter heard him accompanying a singer at Ronnie Scott's London jazz club. Within a month, Holland was on his way to New York City to join Davis' quintet. It was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time, but Holland was already a six-year veteran of the music business with the kind of breadth that Davis looked for in a young musician.

Born in Wolverhampton in the English Midlands, Holland was attracted by the sound of his uncle's ukelele and had graduated to his own guitar by the age of 10. He switched to bass at 13 to play at local dances and clubs, and dropped out of school two years later to try his hand at making a living as a full-time musician. At 17, Holland was in London, picturing a future career as a studio musician and taking private lessons from James Merritt, the principal bassist with the London Philharmonic. Merritt was also on staff at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and he recommended that Holland apply for the school's three-year music program. The young bassist's entrance exam won him a full scholarship and he started classes in the fall of 1964.

His classes exposed him to a world of exciting possibilities in the music of composers like Bela Bartok, while his nighttime adventures exposed him to the cream of a new crop of British jazz musicians, including saxophonists John Surman and Evan Parker, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and guitarist John McLaughlin. By 1967, Holland says he was playing up to 18 hours a day and backing musicians like Coleman Hawkins and Joe Henderson at Ronnie Scott's.

Enter Miles Davis. Holland was already planning on immigrating to the United States in the summer of '68, but nothing could've prepared him for landing in New York City as the replacement for Ron Carter in the leading jazz group of the day. In the studio, Davis was moving tentatively toward more contemporary music that would employ electric instruments and percussion that was closer to the rhythms of soul music and rock. In concert, his band continued to play a mixture of 20-year-old jazz standards and recent compositions by Davis and his saxophonist, Wayne Shorter.

In both settings, Holland played a key role, improvising fluidly and intuitively, pushing the bass into the space left by Davis' desire for more rock-steady drumming. Davis' method was to hire musicians he sensed could express themselves and define their own role without explicit direction. It was a freedom that Holland remembers fondly and it formed the foundation for the bandleader he is today.

In the interim, he has sought freedom in a wide variety of musical settings, from the abstractions of Circle -- which he and pianist Chick Corea formed when they left Davis' band together in 1971 -- to the lyricism of Stan Getz and longtime collaborator Kenny Wheeler. He was with saxophonist Anthony Braxton for some of the innovative composer's most creative work and a regular on the so-called loft scene in Lower Manhattan when new sounds were fomenting in the mid '70s.

Above all, Holland has always sought out supportive musical communities, both on- and offstage. He and his wife Claire moved to the Woodstock, New York area in 1972, and one of his longest-standing musical relationships has been with neighbours John Abercrombie and Jack DeJohnette in a band that has become known as the Gateway Trio. The search for community has also played a part in the years he has spent as a teacher, most prominently at the Banff School of Fine Arts.

But, since 1998, his community has been his quintet, which he has kept on the road steadily, both through the efforts of his daughter Louise, who manages his affairs, and its overwhelming critical success. Not since Weather Report in the late '70s has a working jazz group garnered such widespread consensus among listeners of all stripes. All three of its recordings have been nominated for Grammy Awards and it has been voted best group by both Down Beat's critics and the members of the Jazz Journalists Association.

"It's all been very gratifying," says Holland, "particularly because the music we create is very personal and honest to us."

"It's hard to put your finger on just what makes this band feel so special," says Potter. "I think it may be because we all bring very different things to the band from very different places. We've all played widely and bring our various experiences to the band."

Holland feels it's important that his bandmates have all led their own groups. "Taking on the responsibility of being a leader is a growing experience. I think it gives you a better sense of tolerance, opens you up to sharing your musical ideas more."

"I think we all feel that we're constantly growing in this group," concludes Potter. "And Dave gives us all an equal opportunity to create this mysterious alchemy."

Recommended Listening

The Dave Holland Quintet: Points Of View -- ECM 1663 (1998) With saxophonist Steve Wilson in place of Chris Potter, this is an ideal recording from which to measure the quintet's evolution over the past four years.

Not For Nothin' -- ECM 1758 (2001) One of only two recordings to obtain the coveted five-star rating from Down Beat critics in 2001, the latest recording by the quintet features fine compositions from all the band members and the telepathic interplay that is the group's trademark.

Other Recordings as Leader: Conference Of The Birds -- ECM 1027 (1972) Widely considered Holland's best and one of the best jazz recordings of its era, this features a superb band of improvisers, headed by saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers.

Jumpin' In -- ECM 1269 (1983) Holland's first full-time working band combined the gentle lyricism of Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler with the brash edginess of young alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.

With Miles Davis: The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions -- Columbia Legacy AC3K 65362 (2001) Along with guitarist John McLaughlin, Holland changed the sound of Miles Davis' music -- and with it, jazz in general -- in the late '60s. This box set shows how.

It's About That Time: Live At The Fillmore East March 7, 1970 -- Columbia C2K 85191 (2001) The final performances by Davis' so-called 'lost quintet' -- a band that Holland says influences him to this day.

With Circle: Paris Concert -- ECM 1018 (1971) Impressionist sound paintings by four freedom-seeking musicians, this live recording represents the high point for this short-lived group.

With The Gateway Trio: Gateway -- ECM 1061 (1975) Nominally a band led by guitarist John Abercrombie, the Gateway Trio epitomized group interplay. Their debut recording is one of few from the heyday of jazz-rock fusion that has aged gracefully.

Homecoming -- ECM 1562 (1995) Recorded for one of the trio's occasional reunion tours, this captures three close friends communicating at a very high level.

With Others: Anthony Braxton: News From The '70s -- New Tone 7005 (1999) Selected from Braxton's personal library, these recordings are some of the headiest of the early '70s, including contributions by Kenny Wheeler and George Lewis. Holland is featured on cello as well as bass.

Joe Lovano: Trio Fascination, Edition One -- Blue Note 533114 (1998) Holland hooks up with drummer Elvin Jones to provide an extraordinarily supportive rhythm section for Lovano's post-Coltrane improvisations.

Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song -- ECM 1607 (1997) Holland and Wheeler always sound magical together; the addition of gifted improvisers Lee Konitz and Bill Frisell take it up another level.

C o m m e n t s

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