A musician to be reckoned with for more than three decades, and one of the most widely respected bass players and improvisers in jazz, Dave Holland has attained a new plateau of public popularity and critical acclaim with his current quintet. Both of the quintet's previous albums, for instance, "Points of View" and "Prime Directive", were Grammy-nominated; the band was voted #1 Acoustic Jazz Group of the Year in the Down Beat Critics' Poll, Best Combo of the Year in the Bell Atlantic jazz Awards; the Jazz Journalists Association gave its Live Performance of the Year Award and Best Small Ensemble Award to the Holland Quintet, voted "Prime Directive" Album of the Year and also gave Holland prizes as Bass Player of the Year (twice) and Musician of the Year. Holland has also been #1 Bass Player in the Down Beat Critics Poll for three consecutive years and in 2000 received an Honorary Doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. In the midst of this 'awards-bonanza', quintet saxophonist Chris Potter became, at 29, the youngest musician ever to win the Danish Jazzpar prize, Europe's highest honour for a jazz player.
The group has made its mark by insisting on being "a group" in an age of all-star projects, and by the time-honoured route of going on the road and staying there. Itineraries have taken the unit all over North and South America, Europe and Asia, including a tour of China. Despite the individual members' crowded schedules, each of them makes the quintet a priority. This year, in fact, they've been clocking in thrice with Holland, also appearing as members of his newly-formed octet and big band.
"Much of how this music works is process," Dave Holland said recently. "The circumstances you create. It's about minimising what you impose on the situation but still having enough so that the key elements give it focus. Then, with all the wonderful creative talents of everybody else, you get this wonderful collective communion. That's what I love about the music. The creation of something bigger than yourself. The groups I've always admired were like Ellington's or Miles's bands - groups of strong individuals who were focused around a musical idea. I've always looked for strong players who would bring something to the table. What's happened in terms of the evolution of my group is that it's become clear what the character of the group is and what its unique aspects are. Now we can take advantage of that in the writing and presentation of the music. We've discovered many things about the band and many things about each other - not only about the individuals but the relationship between the individuals that can be explored in the compositions. How Billy plays with Steve, how Robin plays with Chris, and what it sounds like when Robin and I play together - different aspects of the group that can be explored. The band is still growing and expanding its ideas and interpretations and the music we're writing is taking advantage of that."
The group was formed in 1997, with Chris Potter joining just after the release of "Points of View" following year. Using strong rhythms on the Ellingtonian model, to draw the audience in, the quintet neither talk down to the listener, nor over his or her head. Theirs is an approachable jazz that mirrors the pleasure Holland and associates share in the making of it.
"For me, rhythm is one of the primary things that communicates with people", Holland told journalist Anil Prasad. "Even if you can't hear a pitch, you can feel a rhythm, movement and dance-everything that is fundamental to the human condition. I think the use of rhythm and direct melodies-things that strike a direct emotional feeling-are very powerful and will carry any manner of complex meters and harmonies. So, I'm trying to create music that exists on multiple levels, such as simpler elements along with more complex elements. To me, a lot of great art, whether it's visual, musical or written, has an ability to do those things-to offer some fundamental truths that echo in people, yet at the same time, introduce them to a new way of looking at those fundamentals that gives them a little different perspective."
"One of the things that's happening to me as I get older," says Holland, now 53, "is that I'm thinking more and more about using the totality of my experience as a player. Something Sam Rivers said a long time ago has stayed with me: 'Don't leave anything out, use it all.' That's become almost a mantra for me over the years as I've tried to find a way to build a vehicle which lets me utilise the full spectrum which includes the tradition, which includes playing the blues, which includes improvising freely. I love all that music, and there's been a desire to reconcile all those areas, to make them relevant, hopefully, in a contemporary context, as one music."
There are a lot of strands to draw together. After all, a partial list of the musicians Holland has played with includes Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, Evan Parker, John Surman, John McLaughlin, Paul Bley, Lee Konitz, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Betty Carter, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Joe Henderson, Carla Bley, Tomasz Stanko, Michael Brecker, Collin Walcott, George Adams, Hank Jones...a veritable cornucopia of aesthetic viewpoints. Latterly, he has been expanding his frame of reference still further, playing the "Bass Inventions" of composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, new music especially written for Holland.
An ECM artist almost from the very beginning of the label's 30-year existence, Dave Holland's discography includes appearances on recordings with Chick Corea, Circle, Derek Bailey, Barre Phillips, Gateway (the group of which Holland is co-leader, alongside John Abercrombie and Jack DeJohnette), Collin Walcott, Tomasz Stanko, Keith Jarrett and many others. His 1972 recording debut as a leader, the classic "Conference of the Birds" with Rivers, Braxton and Barry Altschul, is widely regarded as a modern jazz classic. ECM releases of recent vintage have included Gateway's "Homecoming" and "In The Moment", Kenny Wheeler's "Angel Song", Charles Lloyd's "Voice In The Night", and "Thimar" with Anouar Brahem and John Surman.
In the context of the current quintet, Dave Holland characterizes vibist Steve Nelson as "a very central part of the new music I'm trying to make." The bassist first worked with him on a 1989 recording session with drummer Tony Reedus and saxophonist Gary Thomas. "He's a special player who can produce many sounds out of his instrument. Using different techniques, different ways of striking it he can create almost a balafon sound, a marimba sound on the vibraphone sometimes, all kinds of nuances. Plus, he's always thinking about the total context of the music and how best to complement it. He has the kind of quality Duke Ellington had in his comping, in that he can wait a long time for the right moment and then play just one chord with perhaps two or three notes in it, but it'll be the perfect moment to create a dramatic entrance. It's a quality I value a lot because the chordal instrument function in the music I'm writing now is important but shouldn't dominate. I'm interested in keeping texture and harmony quite open, even though we're using, in most cases, closed form composition."
Saxophonist Chris Potter made his ECM debut on "Prime Directive". Potter moved to New York from South Carolina in 1989 to attend the Manhattan School of Music and the New School and joined trumpeter Red Rodney, with whom he played until 1993. He then had a brief tenure with the reunited pop group Steely Dan and has since been involved in a wide range of projects including work with the Mingus Big Band and Paul Motian's Electric Be-Bop Band. In addition to recording 6 CD's as a leader, Potter has played in Trio 2000 with Motian and Steve Swallow, appeared on Swallow's ECM/WATT recordings "Deconstructed" and "Always Pack Your Uniform On Top" and been a member of groups led by Jim Hall, Billy Hart, Dave Douglas, Al Foster, John Patitucci and Mike Manieri, among others.
In between leaving and rejoining Holland's ensemble, trombonist Robin Eubanks has fronted his own band and co-led another with Steve Turre and has continued to be in very high demand as a sideman, working with the Mingus Big Band, McCoy Tyner, B.B. King, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Roberts, Bobby Previte, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson and many others. His resume' includes gigs with everybody from Sun Ra to Stevie Wonder, via Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Slide Hampton, and recordings with the Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Barbra Streisand, and Grover Washington.
Dave Holland first played with drummer Billy Kilson s decade ago in Boston. Since then Kilson has worked with Ahmad Jamal and Bob James and played many sessions. He occasionally substituted for Gene Jackson in the "Dream of the Elders" band, the players always appreciative of "the hunger and conviction" he brought to the music. His playing is marked by a fastidious attention to detail. Holland: "He provides a different setting for each soloist. You hear him trying different grooves all the time, and he's very provocative, too. I really think he is one of the most outstanding young drummers we have today."
After summer festival and concert appearances with the Gateway trio on both sides of the Atlantic, Holland will be touring extensively with the quintet in the autumn, with concerts scheduled in Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Macedonia, Switzerland, Italy and Bosnia. This will be followed by a tour of South America.