Dave Holland: History of the Harmonic Context

Dave Holland: History of the Harmonic Context

Interviewed by Ted Panken on WKCR-FM New York City, June 8, 1994
Copyright © 1994, Ted Panken

TP: Let's talk a little about your musical beginnings. First of all, how did Dave Holland and the bass get together?
DH: Well, I guess the first time I played bass was when I was about 13 years old. We had started a garage band. I was playing guitar at the time, and we had like three guitars, drums and a singer. We all thought it was a good idea to have a bass player in the band, and I liked the idea of playing bass. I guess my only connection of having listened to the bass was a bass feature on the B-side of a big band record of the war years that my grandfather had, and it was some source of interest in the family that this instrument was being featured. I remember listening to that quite a lot.

But anyway, I started playing bass guitar at that time. And as I got more involved in learning about bass, I naturally started to listen to acoustic bass players. The first people whose records I bought were Ray Brown and Leroy Vinnegar, and I owe a great deal to both in terms of giving me a really great insight into the beginnings of what I should work on as a player - sound and feel and supportiveness. Both are great supportive playersx as well as good soloists.

That was my beginning. Shortly after getting the records, I managed to persuade my mother, with not much persuasion, to put up the money to buy a nice, shiny plywood bass that was in the music store, and I started playing what's called upright bass probably when I was about 15. I did the first gigs on upright when I was 17. I got offered a summer season in a dance band up in the north of England, and I went up there for a summer, and spent the whole summer practicing like crazy and learning to read the book, which I mostly got through in the beginning by ear...

TP: Is that the summer you learned how to read music?
DH: Basically, yes.
TP: It was an important summer for you, then.
DH: A very important summer. It was a kind of move from which I didn't sort of look back. I got really involved in the acoustic bass. From that gig pretty much I got an offer to go to London and work in a restaurant there, and play there for a year. As soon as I got to London, I found a great bass teacher named James E. Merritt who I continued studying with for four years.

Unfortunately, he's not with us any longer. But he was a great orchestral player, a classical bass player. When I first started studying with him, he was the principal bassist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He and his father, who was also a bass player, used to do bass duets during World War Two on the radio, on the BBC. So he was a good soloist, and later went on to play in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But he was the resident at the Guild Hall School of Music in London.

TP: Before meeting him, were there bassists that you could interact with, get a visual sense how the instrument was played?
DH: Well, any acoustic bass player I saw, I'd be looking and, of course, asking questions. There were a couple of older players, at least older than me at the time, up in the Midlands area (where, as I say, I first lived), and they kind of gave me pointers about how to hold the instrument - very basic stuff. But my main studying started with Mr. Merritt, and he gave me something that's just been invaluable, which was a really thorough kind of pedagogical approach to learning the bass. But at the same time, it wasn't dictatorial. He was very open to lots of different kinds of music. He never had any prejudice about this music over another, and showed interest in what I was getting involved with. Because as soon as I moved to London, of course, I started to go around to clubs and sit in and try and get some contacts there, and work my way through the London Jazz scene.
TP: It was an interesting time for Jazz in London. I gather that you were able to affiliate yourself with musicians of different backgrounds and predispositions.
DH: Well, one of the things that's nice about being a bass player, I think, is that you get a chance to play with a lot of different players. And inevitably, in any city, the musical community divides into cliques or into bands. London was no different. There were different sort of central figures in London around which people revolved. But I had a chance to play with everybody. There was the South African band with Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi Feza, and I got a chance to play with them quite a lot. John Surman's group, Mike Westbrook's band, and then Evan Parker and John Taylor. So there were a lot of different things.

Of course, we're talking about the mid '60s, and we were all being influenced in various ways. When I moved to London in 1964, there was a sort of Traditional Jazz boom in London, New Orleans traditional music - it was on the charts and everything. So a lot of clubs were featuring that music, and those were my first gigs. From there I moved on into different mainstream bands and so on, playing more or less Swing and Bebop style - or trying to anyway! I started to really move into a more contemporary style of playing when I started playing with my so-called peers, as we started hearing these wonderful records coming out from the States - Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane's Love Supreme, Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures, Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity. All these records had a tremendous impact on me. Then from another side of what was happening in New York, the Miles Davis records that were coming out with the new rhythm section of Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. The rhythmic and harmonic innovations that were happening in that group really were inspiring, and I was listening a lot and trying to learn from that.

This was the mix that was going on. And one of the great things that happened (if I could just wind this up) was that around 1966, Ronnie Scott, who for a long time had a club in London (he's a saxophone player), moved his location to another premises, and the old club was handed over to the young musicians to organize, seven nights a week. This is where we had the after-hours sessions and so on. So many bands were given birth in this situation, because now all these people I mentioned earlier had a club where we could really play. We used to perform there and also hang out there until six or seven in the morning playing music. It was a wonderful time, a wonderful time for inspiration and exchange and exploration.

TP: And also a place where you could meet American musicians coming through.
DH: Exactly. Sonny Rollins came there one night, which was a great thrill. I met Jack De Johnette there when he came to London with Charles Lloyd's band in I think 1967. One night I had my eyes closed, I was playing, and suddenly the drum chair changed and I heard Jack on drums. We'd never met, but he just came and took over the drums (of course he was invited), and I just looked and couldn't believe how good it felt. Ever since then we've just had a really good friendship, first of all, and a long musical relationship in many different situations. I was also working at Ronnie Scott's club at that time with people like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Joe Henderson and a number of players that would come through just as a single, and use the local rhythm section. So I was very fortunate to have some contact with those players.
TP: Who was that house rhythm section at Ronnie Scott's?
DH: It changed a little bit. Tony Oxley often was the drummer. John Marshall was the drummer sometimes. The late Pat Smythe was the piano player. He, in fact, gave me my first gig at that club. Gordon Beck was a piano player who played there a lot. There were a number of people. But I did a lot of playing with Tony Oxley or with John Marshall.
TP: Would you discuss the evolution of attitudes towards improvisational content that began to split the London Jazz community into factions, as has been described during this time? Did this indeed happen?
DH: I was fairly unaware of quite a lot of that stuff, because I was so busy and so involved with playing. I didn't bother myself too much with who was getting along with who. I was interested in just getting as much of it all as I could.

Now, I wouldn't say it was a split, but something that happened during the early Sixties in Europe generally was that quite a number of European musicians who were initially quite strongly influenced by African-American music, or music that was coming out of America, felt really strongly that a European approach was needed to improvisation, and they looked to European classical music, to some extent ontemporary European classical music, for languages to use and so on. Out of this came a lot of different movements. Some were very emotional and very hard-playing, at very loud intensity and so on. Other players dealt with finer kind of crafting and so on. There was an attempt there. So there was quite a lot of discussion about whether, as Europeans, we really should be trying to get involved with American music.

As I said, I didn't really think about that. I was more concerned with just playing music. I didn't care where it came from or what it was about. I just wanted to be in something that was good and that had good intentions and sincerity, and as I said, I managed to get involved with a lot of different players. But that was an important development, and out of it came some amazingly interesting players. Evan Parker certainly is for me one of the leading players who has developed and grown and really found a place for his music to go. Derek Bailey is another English musician that I have a great deal of respect for. And many others.

But that I think was a significant, if you want to say "split" or change in people's thinking. Because up to that time, European music was very strongly based on African-American music.

TP: Well, after you came to the United States, you rather quickly became a central figure in the music that was being made in New York.
DH: Well, this was in 1968, and I was finishing up my studies at the school. I had sort of done everything I'd wanted to do in London, and I was really thinking the next step was to come to New York. I'd wanted to be in this place, and I'd already made a number of friends from here, like Jack de Johnette and Joe Henderson and a few people who said that they would try to help me get established here. Probably in late July, I was doing a gig at the Ronnie Scott Club in a band which was the support band for the Bill Evans Trio. Bill was there with Eddie Gomez and Jack De Johnette, and we were playing a piano trio with Pat Smythe and John Marshall, accompanying Elaine Del Mar(?), who is a very good vocalist in London. We were just finishing up a month-long engagement. Miles came into the club one night, fairly early in the night, and stayed. Of course, I presumed he was there to see Bill, who had worked with Miles, who was in London after having done some concerts. The night went on, and I didn't think much about it. But as I was going up for my last set, I got a message from Philly Joe Jones, who lived in London at the time, and was in the club, of course. Philly came up to the stand when I was just getting on the stand with my bass, and said, "Dave, Miles wanted me to tell you that he wants you to join his band" - just like that. And I said, "Philly, you must be kidding" - because Philly Joe was great with jokes. "Don't put me on like that." He said, "No, I'm absolutely serious. You should go and talk to him after the set is finished, and see what's happening."

Well, I got through the set somehow, and by the end of the set, I looked for Miles, but he'd left the club already and gone back to the hotel. I got home late that night, and called early the next morning to speak to him, but he'd left already for America. So I was left for a couple of weeks, not quite knowing what to think. Philly Joe told me that it was a serious offer, and I should just probably wait and see what happened.

A couple of weeks later, I got a call from Miles' manager, Jack Whittamore, a very lovely man. I was starting a week with Joe Henderson at Ronnie Scott's, and I got the call after I got back from the first night of the gig, a Tuesday. He said, "Miles is opening in New York on Friday at Count Basie's, and he really wants you to come and do the gig with him." I said, "Well, I've got to get my visa and everything together, but I'll do my best." He said, "Well, try to be here Thursday; the gig starts Friday." It was a three-week engagement opposite Max Roach's band. So I got everything together, and Thursday afternoon, I was in New York. I went to Herbie Hancock's house to just look at a couple of tunes with him that I wasn't really familiar with, and we did that for an hour or so. The next night I turned up at the club and we started. I guess having that opportunity was probably one of the most singular events that's happened to me. It was an experience that's been valuable and given me so much to work on and develop on since then.

TP: Did Miles play the tunes that you'd worked on, or did he try to shake you up?
DH: Well, first of all, there was no rehearsal, and that's quite normal in a lot of cases, especially at that time. You're expected to know the music. I didn't talk to anybody; I was just waiting to see what would happen. And the next thing I know, Tony Williams is sitting behind the drums, and so I get up and take my bass, and still nobody said anything - and Miles just goes up to the mike and starts playing the first tune. It was a tune I'd heard on record, "Agitation," and it really was just a trumpet line, [SINGS LINE], and then the band comes in with a fast tempo, and we're gone - you know, that's it. We started, and we played maybe five songs, "No Blues," "Stella By Starlight," "Round Midnight" maybe, "Nefertiti."

One story I like to tell is, that night I had a couple of pieces of paper that I had written some chord changes on from the rehearsal with Herbie, and I had them sort of stuck inside the piano, just inside the harp, not on the stand but just inside. So at the end of the night, Miles talked to me for a minute, and then kind of smilingly he said, "And Dave, leave the music at home." Even my two little bits of music I couldn't hang onto. I had to take them home and memorize them so that I could come to the gig next night and not have any music up there. That was one of my first lessons, that as long as you've got paper up there, it's not going to be the same.

When I joined Miles' band, we were playing sort of the whole history of what he had been doing, the early work like "Milestones" and things that he'd recorded on Prestige, with the classic group with Paul Chambers and so on, and we were still playing some of that, but of course, in a different way, and then other things from the repertoire like "Footprints" and songs that were recorded by the other great quintet, with Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. So the music had this tension between the older style and the new style, and of course, the new music that Miles was bringing in, too, that had the influence of the Rhythm-and-Blues and the contemporary music scene at that time.

TP: It seems that every performance by the Miles Davis Quintet was, to use contemporary terminology, a deconstruction of familiar material to different levels of abstraction. And presumably, given his ongoing aesthetic, Miles would not have wanted you to pay any particular attention to your predecessors in the band.
DH: He was a man of few words in terms of instructions, although the few words he chose were always tremendously appropriate at the time. I think the premise that I always felt he worked from, at least the way I could figure it out, was that if you needed to be told, then perhaps that wasn't the right musician for the job. He seemed to choose the people based on what he thought they could give from their natural inherent feeling for the direction of what was happening.

I mean, he did make some very pointed comments to me. I know Jack De Johnette and myself both feel that a lot of the most adventurous things that we did were not really documented on record, because a lot of the studio work was a first reading of a piece. Fortunately, there are a few examples of it coming out now. When I listen to what we were doing then, even though it was a long time ago, what is happening now is still connected to that in a lot of ways.

One of the records I like best from this period is Live From San Juan Des Antibes. When I listen to what we were doing on that record, I realize that although it was a long time ago, what is happening now is still connected to that in a lot of ways. I just did a gig last week in Boston with Jack DeJohnette and John Abercrombie, the Gateway Trio. We had a lot of fun, and as usual, took a lot of chances. Having come from that gig and then listening to this record, I heard a continuation in the tension between the form and the formality of the time and its sort of freeing-up, and treating time as an element of speed as well, of movement - not perhaps time in a strict sense as an ongoing pulse but something that has a freer element to it in some new ways. In some ways I wish I could go back and do some of the stuff with Miles from my current point of view, because I feel now we are a little more grounded than we were then. We were sort of jumping out into the deep end. And I hear a lot of almost disrespect, ha-ha, for the form in some ways! Not in a conscious way, but I was focused on freeing-up the role of the bass and trying to play the instrument much more in a sort of dialogue sense with the rest of the band.

Anyway, I don't know exactly when it was, but at some point Miles kind of got me back on the ground again. He came up to me very quietly one night, and just said, "Dave, you know, you are a bass player." It was one of those things which resounds in your mind. I came away from that realizing that perhaps I was neglecting some fundamental aspects of the instrument which were actually quite beautiful and that I should pay attention to. And since then, I think I've tried to combine stretching, let's say, the role of the instrument with its fundamental support role of creating a reference point for the other instruments to work from. Objects which are moving in a very free fashion have more meaning sometimes when they're in reference to something which is a little more stable, for instance, because you can see the relationships more clearly. I don't know if that makes sense. But the bass can often create that point of reference harmonically, rhythmically, as can the drums, which allows the other instruments to have that kind of freedom and still make formal sense.

There's moments on this record where I say to myself, "You know, I could have perhaps given a little bit more of that reference point to it." But the music has a very exciting feel to it. It's a sense of discovery, a sense of taking a lot of chances. The other thing I notice, of course, is the formality of the tunes and the way we're stretching them, and the response of the rhythm section to that.

I mean, it's hard now to go back to 1969 and think about what was going on, especially for people who weren't living then or experiencing the things that were happening then. But there were a tremendous amount of changes going on, not just in the music, but socially and politically. There was a kind of breaking-loose of a lot of traditions and almost a disrespect for a lot of traditions. I think that was reflected in a lot of the forms of music. I wouldn't say totally disrespect, but a need to perhaps break out of them again. Albert Ayler's music, Cecil Taylor's music, Ornette's music I think redefined language in the music, and maybe broke out of some the formalities that were going on before. I'm not saying one's better or worse or any of that. It's just a natural progression I think that happens in any art form.

I think your use of the word "deconstruct" is interesting, because we were taking the tunes apart, playing elements of them, using some very free rhythmic kind of elements mixed-in, jumping in and out of the time, not feeling like the time was a compelling thing that had to be kept going, but could be played and then opened up and then come back to, and like that. The same with the form. Sometimes we'd play strictly within the forms, but other times we'd go off on excursions, and then come back and refer back to the form.

That's something we continued doing after we left Miles. I think that aspect of the music was one of the compelling reasons why I was interested in the Circle band, and I think why Chick was at that time. We wanted to explore more of that. Towards the end of my tenure with Miles, I was playing a lot more bass guitar than acoustic bass. In fact, the last couple of trips out on the road I didn't even take the acoustic, because the music had kind of moved on, with a much stronger Rhythm-and-Blues element going on. First of all, just as an instrumentalist, I always felt for a long time that my voice was the acoustic bass, and I wanted to get back to that, and I wasn't happy with the idea of not playing it on gigs and so on. Also, the musical areas that I was interested in exploring at that time were, I think, gradually being replaced by the new directions that Miles wanted to go in. He wanted, I think, a more supportive backdrop from the rhythm section than I was prepared to give up at that time.

TP: Deep grooves.
DH: Yeah, deep grooves and so on. The idea for me was to try and continue on at least for a while with that idea.
TP: Subsequently you seem to have operated with equal comfort with one foot in both paths that were delineated at that time.
DH: Yes.
TP: I'd imagine Circle is where you first encountered Anthony Braxton.
DH: Well, Chick and I had started doing some things outside of the work with Miles. We had started playing with a drummer who was from New York, Barry Altschul, and we had done a few trio things together. We had a gig at the Village Vanguard, opposite Roy Haynes' band, a week with a trio with Chick and Barry and myself, and during that time we made the first record as a trio, called The Song Of Singing, which came out on a Blue Note album at that time. During that week, one night Anthony came down. We'd never met before; he hadn't met any of us. In fact, he came down to hear Roy Haynes' band, and in the meantime, heard the music we were playing, and came over and said how much he was interested in what was happening. So we said, "Why don't you come over tomorrow, and we'll do some playing in the afternoon at the loft." I was living in a building on 19th Street at that time with three lofts - Chick had one loft, I was in another one, and Dave Liebman was in another. So we had a place we could play. Anthony came over the next afternoon, and we played all afternoon. In fact, we played the entire kitchen! We played all the kitchen implements and everything in the loft, and we had a very interesting time just exploring sounds and improvising together. So we asked Anthony to join the trio, in effect, and that was the beginning of the band Circle. About two months later, Chick decided to leave Miles' band and to concentrate on that group, which we did for about a year and a half.
TP: Circle was very important in terms of both compositional and improvatorial ambition in the 1970's. The group manifested no prejudices in its musical choices; it would tackle a wide range of concepts.
DH: One of the things that was good for me was that I began to sort of seriously consider trying to compose. I'd written a couple of tunes prior to that, but here we had a band, and we were ready to attempt anything, and so it gave me a chance to think about, well, what I'd like to write for it. Also, Chick and Anthony were accomplished composers. So we had quite a large, broad and varied collection of music to draw from, and as you say, we were able to attempt a lot of different things. It was a band where we were free to really do what we wanted to do, and to find out where we could go with it.

The other side of it for me is that in Circle I was able to continue my efforts to avoid certain conformities as a bass player, to almost exclude certain elements of time and rhythm that were associated with the tradition of the music, and transform them into some other type of rhythm and other type of elements. I was certainly influenced by that venturesome feeling of the time. As a young man, obviously, I wanted to be as at the cutting edge as possible, and I had a certain mindset that I see, looking back, where I was sort of consciously avoiding elements in my playing that actually were there, were part of my background as a player, and which since then I've allowed to let out.

TP: Was Braxton exploring with you very much his own concept of orchestration for the small group?
DH: No. Well, we shared the sort of writing chores between us. Chick didn't do very much writing at that time for the band. I think most of the music that we played was written either by Anthony or myself. I had never played anything like Anthony's music before. The concepts that he introduced to the band, the ways that he had of setting up structure as a vehicle for improvisation were very interesting and very inspiring, and gave us a whole new starting point for what we were wanting to do.

But the other thing that happened, too, was that we were still playing some of the standard Jazz compositions, and tying that in with what we did with Miles. We were exploring opening up the structures of standard tunes, like "Nefertiti" and "There Is No Greater Love," that we kind of took apart, or disassembled, and reinterpreted using elements of our open form improvisation experience, but injecting it into the form of the standard tune.

TP: You spent a good chunk of the 1970's working with Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers after Circle broke up.
DH: That's true. We had all been living in L.A. for about six months, actually, when the band broke up. Barry and I both came to New York, although first I went up to Seattle for a few months with my wife and daughter. My wife was expecting our second child, and we came back to New York basically to set up home and have our second baby. Anthony had gone to Paris for a while, and worked over there, but he'd been making trips back to New York, and it was during one of these trips that we did Conference Of The Birds. Three-quarters of the band was Circle, and we had already achieved an identity as a collection of people. Barry and I also started playing with Sam Rivers after we got back to New York. We were going over to Sam's loft, and playing two or three hours a day with him.
TP: Maybe you could give us a capsule assessment of the very distinctive musical personalities of Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton.
DH: Apart from both being wonderfully creative players, Sam and Anthony actually came from two very different ends of the spectrum, particularly in their approach to small-group playing. Sam's approach was basically improvisational, where each night was just a blank piece of paper that we started with, and we began and then continued, and whatever moods or compositional type situations we wanted to create, we created them on the spot, and developed something different every night from that. Braxton's thing also was improvisation every night, and it was different every night, but he's also a structuralist in the sense that he likes to present the improvisers with some very clear parameters structurally in the compositions.

To me, it was a very interesting situation to be playing with both these great players. I remember one time Tony and I did a duo concert at a place called Environ, which was a loft that was active in the city in the Seventies; he turned up the day before with forty pages of written music for me to look at. Whereas Sam's thing was we'd just pretty much get on the stand and start. So fairly extreme, but as I said, both really challenging situations. I felt they stretched me in different ways, basically.

TP: How did you experience the evolution of the Braxton Quartet, which worked together really quite a bit over that four-year period?
DH: Yes, it did. As the band went on, the thing that occurs to me most is that Anthony seemed to integrate more and more into the improvisation's structural elements, so that towards the end of our concentrated period of playing together, the music was in large part through-composed, but with elements of improvisation interjected into that. Often we were operating with like a full score within which various things were coordinated between instruments, lines that had to coincide with each other between some instruments while another instrument might be improvising, and lots of very interesting ways to structurally set up the music. There were things like that that we did earlier, some of the Kelvin tunes that he wrote, in which there was a rhythm line written and relative pitches written, but no specific pitches, but the rhythm form was kind of the unison that was being used, and things like that which were reference points for the improvising to start from. Anthony would always try and come up and present us with something new to deal with, in terms of those elements, of how the band could interact, how the rhythm section could work with the horns, or how the improvising could be structured around compositional elements.
TP: Similarly, some general comments on the musical essence of Sam Rivers.
DH: I think something that I always appreciated working with Sam, and learned a lot, was that his history stretched back into some Blues bands, he'd worked with Billie Holiday. He'd written some wonderful music within the traditional structures of the music, and during the Sixties (or at least this was the way it appeared to me) transformed those ideas into a new contemporary language, both in his writing for big band and in his small-group improvisations. Most of the small-group things I did with him were improvised, and the trio work I did for at least nine years, we never played written music on the gig. So every night was like a blank sheet of paper that you could come with whatever happened to be on your mind that evening, and start working on it, and introducing it. It was a tremendous opportunity for me to basically find out how to develop ideas and structure the improvisation, and to add structure to it from my position as a bass player in the band.

Sam encouraged me to use all the music. He would tell me, "Don't leave anything out. Play all of it. If you hear it and you don't play it, it will be gone. Play it when you hear it." He came up to me one night after I'd begun playing with him regularly in 1972 or '73, and said, "You know, Dave, you should maybe set up a vamp first to play," and I was like a little stunned. I wanted to just play, you know, as free as possible. He said, "Well, it's a part of the music." Sam got me back into that, thinking about trying to bring all the elements into the music, and I thank him for that. I think there's been a direct influence on the music that I've done since then from that experience.

I felt there was a very broad range of language that was available to Sam which was very personal. His rhythmic language especially, and his big-band writing, which unfortunately hasn't been heard enough, was tremendous, and had an influence on me and my writing certainly, certain things that I've written after working with him. The greatest thing was that he allowed me to just refer to any aspect of music that I wanted to. He was ready to jump into any type of situation that you set up for him, and of course, he also led us into some great musical areas. So it was a great workshop for me, of working out ideas.

TP: In reference to his very personal sound palette. playing four instruments in the course of a performance sort of manifests the Ornette Coleman principle that if you can't find someone who gets the sound you want, play it yourself and get it like that.
DH: [LAUGHS] Yes. Well, Sam is an accomplished player on tenor, soprano and flute, and also on piano. He played some wonderful things on piano, too. Normally, one of the basic premises of the set would be the structure of the four instruments being played throughout the set, and interspersed with that would be usually an extended bass solo and an extended drum solo - and that was the only form we had to work with. Outside of that, we basically created whatever structures we felt were relevant at the time.
TP: In the 1970's, you also began recording as a solo instrumentalist.
DH: The first solo thing I did was a solo bass album called Emerald Tears on ECM Records, and we did that in '77, I think. We had started the solo thing actually with Circle. There were some evenings we'd structure the set whereby we'd feature somebody as a solo in the middle of the set. As you said, we were exploring all kinds of different things. That was the first time I was confronted with the idea of standing up and playing an unaccompanied solo as a bass player, other than in a group context. Anthony actually was very encouraging in telling me that I should consider that more. He understood that solo playing for a player is a very personal and going deep into yourself type experience. He did some amazing things, and still does, in a solo context. You never get bored hearing one instrument when you listen to Anthony's solo work. He set some standards for me in terms of how a solo concert should be structured. Then I said, "Well, the next step is for me to try and do some solo work," and we started by doing this album, and then following on from that, I began doing solo concerts, which have continued up to this day.
TP: Perhaps now's the time to discuss the development of your working group which recorded rather prolifically in the 1980's, worked a great deal, and nurtured several musicians who have in turn made their mark. Bass players aren't supposed to be leaders of working groups!
DH: Now, now, Ted, don't be saying things like that! [LAUGHS] Well, up to about 1981, I was working with Sam Rivers pretty much exclusively, at least for the last part of the Seventies, from around 1976 up to '81. In 1981 I really felt driven to start working on my own project. I had always felt that would come later on. I knew my apprenticeship needed time in the music; at least I had always felt that. But around that time, I said, "Well, now's the time to do it." I began by doing some solo concerts, and just gave myself a little break from being committed to another project.

Well, something came in out of the blue. I got very sick around this time, and was hospitalized, and out of action for about a year for something that was quite unexpected, but had quite a profound effect on me. I've heard other people talk about this, too, when they've had a life-threatening situation, that you come out of that with perhaps a certain clarity, and certainly an appreciation of having another chance at continuing on with your life.

So after that, in 1982, I was not about to waste any time in getting on with the business of putting a band together. I had always thought of Kenny Wheeler as being somebody I wanted to continue on with. I had known Kenny from the mid-Sixties in England. One of my first record dates had been with Kenny on a rather obscure album called Windmill Tilt, which is a beautiful big band album that he wrote in the mid-Sixties that was performed by the John Dankworth Band. John McLaughlin is on that record. So Kenny was somebody I had always had in mind to include in on a band.

Steve Coleman I had heard in my involvement with Sam Rivers. Sam had used Steve as the lead alto in his big band, and Steve was one of the really serious musicians in the band, interpreted the music well, and seemed to have an understanding of what that music was about. Julian Priester I met on a trip up to Seattle. I'd met him before, but we actually played together on a trip to Seattle that I made. And Smitty came in the band actually after another drummer, Steve Ellington, who did our first album. Steve was actually the drummer with Sam Rivers' band when I left Sam's band. So there were some connections with everybody. I met Smitty around 1983-84, at a jam session in New York, and I loved his playing; we rehearsed, and I asked him to join the band at that point.

TP: It seems you have a predilection for drummers who project great propulsion - strong, expressive, individualistic drummers.
DH: I had the good fortune of working with Smitty for probably eight or nine years in various combinations. Smitty is a great player and an individual stylist, and as you say, has that drive and buoyancy to his playing. I guess I got spoiled, because a lot of my playing in the early years was with Jack De Johnette and Tony Williams, and I got used to a certain kind of energy from the drums, a certain creative ongoing kind of movement in the playing, not a style that just sort of sits there and accompanies, but has a real dialogue going all the time with the music - and I always look for that in drummers that I work with. And I've been very lucky in finding people to work with me that way. People now are getting a chance to really hear what Gene Jackson can do, and he's getting more and more in demand. I just hope he leaves some time open for me.

Anyway, this is how the band came together. I wrote some new music for it, and I also decided that I wanted to use some music that I had recorded but never played very much, like some music on the Conference of the Birds album, we played some of those songs, and I made some arrangements for the quintet. It became a working band. It was difficult at the beginning economically. Also, everybody lived so far apart. Kenny lived in London, Julian lived in Seattle, and then the rest of us were in New York. But it was worth it. It was a band that had a sound, and there was a personality to it, I think, that developed. It was a great learning experience for me, too, and helped me with my writing, and helped me learn to take responsibility for things a little more.

I think when you mentioned bass players...

TP: It was a bad joke!
DH: I know it was a joke. But there comes a point when you have to learn to step into the limelight a little bit more and to take responsibility, which doesn't always come easy. I had to learn to assert myself a little more in things I wanted to do and so on - and that's been an ongoing process. This band was an opportunity for me to learn some of those things, as well as have a lot of fun playing with those great players.
TP: The musicians you've worked are real individualists, young individualists on their instruments - Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, Robin Eubanks and so forth.
DH: Yes.
TP: It seems to me that's a quality that's maybe paramount in what you're looking for in someone to play your music.
DH: It is. Again, some of my earlier experiences, playing with Miles, for instance, I saw, when he put bands together and when he worked with musicians, that he kind of worked simultaneously at trying to create a focus for the band but also wanting to draw on that energy and draw on the creative power of the players that he had, and often referred to young players in his group. I'm not prejudiced against older players or younger players; I'm mostly interested in good players. But there is something special in the player that's developing and searching and striving that gives an edge to the music, I think, that can be really powerful in what we're doing.
TP: Do you write for the personnel, or do ideas shape themselves outside of that? How does that work for you?
DH: It can be a mixture. There are some tunes that I've certainly written with people in mind, and then other times a song that I used perhaps a few years ago I then find suddenly relevant to a situation I'm in. We're playing a couple of tunes with my current group, for instance, that are from a few years ago; I'd never really used them very much, and suddenly with this combination of people it made sense to play them. So it's a mixture of those two things.

For me, players find each other. You gravitate towards the things that you need to do. And I've been lucky, as I say, and fortunate to be in a situation where I've heard certain players, and they've heard me and been interested in working together. Out of that we've made some very good music, I think.

TP: In relation to your group in the 1980's, what comes to mind is that a decade before the formation of this band you produced one of the most distinctive albums of the period. Particularly your melodic sensibility comes out in the six compositions of Conference Of The Birds. Some of the tunes have stayed with me for twenty years since I first heard them, and I know it had a big impact on a lot of people. So why didn't you try to go off and bring your musical personality out as a "leader" at that time?
DH: Well, there's a few reasons. I think the biggest is that for me musical situations come out of relationships with musicians. At the time we did this record, these three people that created this music with me were the people I wanted to play with. I had wanted this band to work. I would like to have seen this as a working quartet. But of course, we had some very strong personalities in the band. Both Sam and Anthony were already organizing work under their own leadership. And they both had very diverse styles. They both approached the music from very different points of view.
TP: That's what makes the record so fascinating.
DH: I think so. I've reflected on that before, that I think there's a certain tension between Anthony's approach and Sam's approach that certainly makes for very interesting directions in the music. So I had hoped for this band to work, and we did a few concerts. But it became clear after those concerts that this wasn't going to happen. There wasn't any negativity happening, but it was a question of two very different approaches really not working.

So in view of that, I didn't want to just put a band together and, okay, now I'm going to start auditioning musicians to start another band! There was also the fact that at that time I couldn't think of musicians that I felt could approach the music from the direction that I wanted to do it in. There was a lot of fusion music happening, for want of a better word, there was a preoccupation with that approach, and I don't think there was room for what we wanted to do. And both Sam and Anthony wanted me to stay involved with their music, and because of that, I felt that was the promise to be fulfilled at that time, that those relationships were the most important to me. There were many projects with Anthony and Barry that we recorded under Anthony's direction, and then there were many projects that we recorded under Sam's direction. To me, that was the follow-up of what we did on Conference of the Birds. So pretty much until 1981, which is when I did start a band, I stayed with that thing.

The other thing was that, as a young man (I guess when we did this album I was 26), I think I lacked a certain confidence, too, to just jump out there and start doing things myself. I felt comfortable in the role of sharing in somebody else's music, and getting back to what we said about the bass and the character of the instrument, at that time I wasn't quite sure how to assume the mantle of leadership. So I was quite comfortable with that decision. I think it's important you do things when you're ready for them, and by the time the first edition of the quintet happened in 1982, I was ready for it, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I had music written for it - and to me it was more meaningful in that way.

I think it's one of the problems we're facing right now in the record industry, in that the young players sometimes are forced into leadership positions before they've had a chance to really check out all the possibilities. At an early age, you may not be clear about exactly what it is you want to do, so then there's a sort of grasping at an idea or going along with the suggestions of the record company or whatever, and there's not enough time to formulate your music. Of course, there are exceptions. Miles had his first band in his early twenties, I believe. But in a lot of cases, these things take time to develop and to formulate.

I think as a young player, it's important that you get a chance to check out a lot of different things, you know, and to find out from all those things exactly what it is you're interested in. That was my approach, and how I felt about what I was doing. I've never felt that I was on a time schedule. I think the music has to happen in its own time and when you're ready, and I try and let that be the governing factor in what I do.

TP: In that regard, a few words about your ideas and intentions for your current group, with Steve Nelson, vibes, Eric Person, saxophones, Gene Jackson, drums, vis-a-vis your groups of the 1980s. Is there some sort of radical departure in the sound you're hearing, or something that distinguishes this, apart from the personalities of the musicians, from what you were trying to explore then?
DH: I think one of the major differences is probably the introduction of a chordal instrument. The music I was writing through the Seventies and Eighties was very much conceived with the idea of the sparseness of a group that does not have a chord instrument. In other words, the harmonies were implied by the written lines and by the juxtaposition of melody with the bass line, in improvisation. A lot of what we were doing was, you know, opening up the harmony, and I felt at that time the introduction of a chordal instrument would perhaps inhibit the possibilities that we had.

I was, to be honest, a little unsure of how to integrate the chordal instrument into the music that I was writing. Then I started to find some things in my writing that seemed to really call out for it. For some of the music on Triplicate [ECM], although it was done as a trio with Jack De Johnette and Steve Coleman, I was beginning to hear the possibilities of a chordal instrument. That's when I started getting together with Kevin Eubanks, and we put together that quartet.

TP: Related to that, three of your compositions appear on a 1989 date [The Oracle, EmArcy] with Hank Jones and Billy Higgins as well.
DH: Yes!
TP: So there's a chordal instrument.
DH: It certainly is. One of the great ones! We'd been out for about eight weeks doing a world-wide tour. The band that I was involved with was with this rhythm section, Hank and Billy, and two great horn players, James Moody on tenor and Curtis Fuller on trombone. We had a lot of fun the whole time. There were a couple of other bands on the tour, too, so it was a very nice thing. So during the course of the tour, we had started talking about doing an album with the three of us. There seemed to be a nice chemistry involved in playing. Certainly for me, the honor of playing with two great players like Hank and Billy... It's kind of riding in a Cadillac. You don't feel any bumps at all. It's wonderful!

Anyway, that quartet with Kevin and Smitty and Steve ended around 1992, just the end of '91. I had been involved in other projects over the last couple of year, and when I put this new group together in January of last year, I really wanted to include a chordal instrument in that. I had been an admirer of Steve Nelson, who is a great player, for some time, and I liked the idea of the vibraphone for the sparseness of its voicings, and Steve interesting way of exploring those ideas. I mean, it's not like you have ten fingers, as you do in the piano. So that was a very big part of what I heard for the sound of this group.

So I think that's sort of the direction that I hear the music. I'm looking for a harmonic context for the music. The other side of it is that I've increasingly involved in how to create closed-form music which still has an open form sound. In other words, I wanted to write structures which would create possibilities that you would not necessarily find in open-form playing, which you wouldn't stumble across, and it would create certain rhythmic disciplines, let's say, within the form, but at the same time have a certain openness.

C o m m e n t s

dave holland interview 1 of 1
greg masters
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April 17, 01

Ted, Awesome interview you conducted with Dave Holland, 1994. I just caught up with it on the JJA web site. So much great information. Thanks.

Greg Masters

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