With an illustrious career spanning more than 50 years, bassist Dave Holland is now touring with his latest project Prism. He spoke to SJM editor Charlie Anderson.
Let’s start by talking about your latest project, Prism. Is there any significance there in the name Prism?
I was wanting to give the band a name rather than have another Dave Holland band, I’ve had Dave Holland Sextet, Dave Holland Big Band etc. etc. so I thought it would be nice to have an identity to this group, particularly as I really wanted to see this as a co-operative project, where everybody had an equal share in what we were doing. I always like to have full input, creatively, from the musicians anyway in terms of compositions and things like that but I just thought it would be nice for this band to have a name. So I was thinking about it and I was thinking of something that would maybe represent something about what I was hoping would happen with the music. And the image of a prism came up in my mind and then I thought about what that does, how it breaks down the elements of light and refracts it and so on. I thought the unifying factor of light and energy and so on and how that represents music. And the various parts of the prism and maybe the different parts of the band and elements like that. So I just thought that there was a nice symbol there that would work for the group.
Had you played with the other band members a lot beforehand?
Yes. That’s really how I put a band together. It’s put together with people that I’ve had a chance to work with and felt a strong connection with, musically and feel certainly inspired and also people that I can learn from myself. I’m looking for stimulation and people who are going to bring out of me things that I haven't done before.So these are musicians that I absolutely admire tremendously. But the project started with my desire to get back again with Kevin Eubanks. We had played together several years ago for a while and then Kevin moved to Los Angeles to work on a television show there [The Tonight Show] and was doing that there for almost eighteen years. We’d made several attempts to work together over that time but it was very difficult because of his commitment to that show was about 50 weeks a year. So a couple of years ago he decided that he would be moving on and we’d been in touch of course over that period of time and talked about playing together several times so I said ‘how about we put a project together?’ and he said ‘yeah, that would be wonderful’. That was the starting point and then I started thinking about what kind of setting to put together. I thought a quartet would be a nice, fast moving unit of people. Plus, I didn’t want to have horn players in this group. I’ve had lots of horns in the bands that I’ve had previously so I wanted to get a different sound out of the band with the guitar. The next thought was to have a keyboard player but one that could also play electric piano. I’ve loved Craig’s playing for a long time and we’ve had a chance to play together and he’s an amazing musician both on piano and on electric. Eric Harland, I’ve worked with several times over the years in different projects. There’s a band called Overtone which actually is still, theoretically, working together (though we haven’t got anything planned at the moment) with Jason Moran and Chris Potter. Then there’s another group that I had with him that was a sextet. Eric is just a wonderful player, so supportive and sensitive to the changes of the music, what each moment represents and what the possibilities are of each moment in the music so I love playing with him, not to mention the fantastic feel to what he does.
So that was how the band came together. I asked everybody to write some songs for the group, we rehearsed and went out on the road. We’re now in the process of developing new music for the next one.
What’s your approach to composing? How do you go about writing a piece?
I basically sit down, usually at the keyboard, and start working through some ideas, hoping that one of them will lead me somewhere. Usually the music is coming out of a project. Almost everything I’ve written has usually started out being something that I’m writing for a particular group of people and for a particular project. So that’s always a good starting point – for me to think about the sound of the band and the way people play and how to frame those possibilities within a composition that will lead us into some interesting directions. So that’s how I start and I also think about the mood that maybe I’m trying to create with the piece. Often I’m also thinking about what kind of thing I want to play and what can help me, as a player, develop and grow and work in areas that I’m trying to develop. I feel there’s a very symbiotic relationship between composing and playing – one feeds the other. I write music often in order to explore particular approaches to playing and concepts as well as, of course, trying to evoke a mood and atmosphere that will communicate with the audience. It’s a matter of deciding on what musical language the piece is going to develop and what kind of opportunity that’s going to give to us all in the band as players to develop those ideas and have room to input our own creativity too. I’m looking for music which is not absolutely a finished product. I want something which has room for the input of all the musicians to work on so for instance in the drum parts I don’t write a lot of drum parts for the drummers. I usually give them the melody or the main events that are in the tune and there will occasionally be a suggestion about something, maybe a bass drum figure or something like that. I always figure that if you’ve got to say too much about what has to be done with the music, you’ve probably got the wrong people to play it. So I look for the right people and then they usually come up with some ideas that I would never have thought of. I try to leave room for that to happen.
You’ve been playing double bass now for nearly 50 years. Is that right?
Yeah. Actually I started 52 years ago when I was 15 years old but I was still a bass guitarist at that point and I didn’t start working as an acoustic bass player until I was 17. I was professional at 15. I started playing bass guitar when I was 13 in fact. Then I left school and started playing when I was 15 as a full-time musician. Then I got an acoustic bass, started practicing with records, trying to learn little bits and pieces from bass players that I met (hand position and things like that). Then I got my first full-time gig on acoustic bass up in Scarborough. One of the local musicians from Birmingham was taking a band up for a summer season in Scarborough and offered me the job.
Do you find that you’ve still got new things to learn on the instrument?
Oh yeah! Are you kidding?
What sort of things?
Well, how to play it better, that’s for sure. I mean, some of it is just improving the technique, being more relaxed, more fluent, connecting up your mind with your instrument, all those things. But also there’s conceptual ideas that I’m still working on and having to develop techniques to play them. Fingering is always an issue on stringed instruments, working out the best fingerings for moving around the instrument. And then there’s the daily warmup practice and things like that. Mostly for me it’s to keep fluent on the instrument and to keep developing the ability to play the concepts that I’m thinking about on the instrument and that’s an ongoing thing. There’s lots to do. Until I can’t play any more, I can see that I’m always going to be working on stuff.
Tell us a bit about your teaching approach, when it comes to teaching double bass to students.
Well, the first thing that I try to do is get inside their head a little bit and find out what they’re trying to do and make an assessment of where they’re at on the instrument technically. And I try to find out what they’re trying to do on the instrument because technique is something very much to do with playing what you want to play on the instrument – being able to play what you want to play, because different techniques apply to different approaches to the instrument. I try to find out what they’re trying to achieve and then try to help them do that. And of course, along the way, if I see anything that needs some serious correction technically (hand position and so on, that’ll make their life easier playing the instrument) then I’ll do that.
We work, usually, in two main areas: the technical preparation on the instrument and then conceptual. And so the conceptual thing, I pretty much try and take the lead from them (What is it that you’re interested in? What kind of things are you trying to do? What music are you listening to?) and then try and give them some indication of how they can work on those things. Maybe they’re trying to develop how to play more melodically on the instrument, so I’d make suggestions on how to develop their melodic concept or rhythmic concept. So it’s very much based on what I see in their playing. It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of teaching method. It’s much more geared towards the individual. I think that’s what a teacher needs to do – to release the potential creativity in the student and that needs you to be able to understand what that potential is about and what they’re reaching for. And everybody learns at their own pace and everybody learns in their own way. It has to be done, in my opinion, it has to be done in a very personal way.
Have you noticed any changes over the years, teaching students, do you think their level has improved, in terms of academic education.
Education is very good at the moment in jazz. There are lots of institutions now that didn’t even let jazz in through its front door, that now have substantial jazz programmes. But the availability of more information doesn’t necessarily make better players, it’s what you do with that information that’s important. And so the academic situation doesn’t always allow for individual pacing and progress. This is not to criticise them too much because I think many of the schools do a fantastic job. Not everybody works at the same pace, as I said earlier, so in year one you’re supposed to do this, year two this and year three. That’s not how it works for everybody.
My studies as a jazz player were very much, as they say, ‘on the street’: listening to records, talking to musicians, learning from playing with players and getting together with them, listening to music, all that kind of thing, in a much organic way. So, as I felt the need to learn something, I would pursue that so I was able to build that very much myself. And certainly there weren’t any books about playing jazz, or books of transcriptions so you had to work that all out yourself which is a process in itself that’s very beneficial. It takes longer than just opening up a book and reading through a solo but you get a lot more out of listening over and over to one phrase and trying to get it right. There’s ear training involved and really getting a feel for how the phrasing is happening and things like that, which sometimes is skimmed over a little bit when you’re just looking at a book of transcriptions.
On the other hand, I think there’s always been great players and players of a more normal standard ability and that’s still the case so in that way it hasn’t changed at all. The learning process has changed a fair amount and of course the access to information is amazing now. You can go on YouTube and see historic videos that of course I was never able to do. I didn’t know what the players looked like unless they came to London and did a concert. And I wasn’t always able to see how they held their instrument and how they played and things like that.
So, I think all that is great. All the books and the information, if they’re used correctly, along with the recordings then they can be a great asset. So I don’t want to say whether one type or one period is better than the other, I just think we’re in a situation now where we’ve got tremendous access to information, young people have a fantastic knowledge of the history of the music and access to a range and variety that is phenomenal. What I hear in their work, when I listen to the music they’re writing it’s reaching into all kinds of different areas and disciplines. I’m very encouraged by what I hear in young people.
Do you still have time to go out and go to jazz clubs?
I do. I like to hear live music. I like to hear what’s going on with players. I also listen to recordings a lot, of course. If there’s somebody that I want to check out, it’s very easy to find something that they’ve done and listen to it. But there’s nothing to replace the actual experience of sitting in front of a musician or a band and listening to them play and being able to get that first-hand contact, on-the-spot real-time contact. And of course, often I’m playing festivals or concerts where there’s other bands and I get to hear them. That’s probably where a lot of what I hear live is in those situations. But I don’t live far from New York City (in American terms anyway). There’s a high-speed highway down to New York and it takes me about an hour and 45 minutes to get there so I can get in and listen to all kinds of things.
What sort of things do you do outside of music? Is there like a hobby or an interest that takes you away from it?
I don’t have anything that’s like building furniture or anything like that. My wife and I developed a very nice garden at our house. She did most of it. She passed away a couple of years ago so I do it with some help now. I’m enjoying maintaining that.
I love films and recently I’ve been doing a lot of research into the actual art of filmmaking, different cameras and how films are put together. I saw a fantastic series on the history of film that was developed in the UK [The Story of Film: An Odyssey directed & narrated by Mark Cousins] which got me really interested in the whole process of filmmaking on a new level. I’ve always enjoyed movies but it got me looking at films with a bit more understanding of the actual technique as well as the art form of it (more like the way I listen to music). I do a lot of reading. I like poetry. I read a lot of books. I have an e-book reader that I take on the road. They’re wonderful because I used to cart three or four books with me when I was travelling now I can carry a whole library with me so it’s a great asset.
I like to get some moderate exercise. I like to do some bike riding, go for hikes. I live in a beautiful area so I like to be in nature and do things like that.
My other big thing, other than music, is my family. I’ve got three grandchildren and my daughter, who is my manager as well, has her own management company. I enjoy being around my family.
I like cooking. I’ve taken up cooking since my wife’s not around. I was given a wok for Christmas so I’m doing some Chinese cooking. I love going out and getting the ingredients and then putting them together and feeding friends. It’s a nice meditation, cooking.
Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
Well, I’d like to let you know one other thing that I’m doing. There are other projects that I'm involved with. The Quintet is still ongoing although it’s on hold at the moment – everybody is doing other things right now and I’m concentrating on Prism as my main project. I have one other secondary project that’s the other thing that I’m doing quite a bit of work with, which is a duo project with Kenny Barron. We’ve been working together on and off for the last couple of years and we’ve done quite a bit more work together. We’ve just finished a tour in April and we’ve got a recording being released on Impulse! in September and that’s a wonderful thing. I’m enjoying it so much. Ken is an amazing musician and such a nice man too. We’ll be in London for the London Jazz Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday 21st November.
And there are several other projects that I’m developing. I’ve got a couple of recordings that I’m in the process of planning and doing outside of Prism. The nice thing now is that I have my own record company so I can be in charge of how things are done, how they’re promoted, when they’re recorded and so on. We’ve started doing some internet-only releases – ones that are just for download and that’s opened up a whole new possibility. It makes the whole process of releasing a record much simpler in a certain way. Once you’ve got the recorded music, it’s just a matter of putting it up on the internet, adding some artwork and a booklet and there it is for people. And you don’t even have to release whole albums anymore. You can put out single tracks. In fact, right now we’re preparing a live 25-minute version of a song that we did with Prism which is an all-out jam! I’ll probably put that up later this year on my website, www.daveholland.com. That’s something that, in the next couple of years, I’m going to be developing a lot more which is this idea of releasing tracks and making them available for download from the website. I’ve also got a catalogue of music that’s available on the website under my publishing company, Lojac Music and that’s all accessible through www.daveholland.com. So, tell us about the Love Supreme Festival. How is it?
It’s basically a field and they put up these big circus-type tents with a stage inside each one. There’s usually about three of them and then there’s a big outdoor stage, a stall promoting Brighton Jazz School and there’s the Bandstand where the local musicians play. And the atmosphere there is great, lots of people camp there for the weekend.
That sounds great. Like a mini Isle of White!
Totally. That’s how the magazine came about. I was at the festival last year and heard so much great music from local musicians I thought it would be good to start up a magazine.
Good for you. I’m actually in England for a couple of days. We’re in the middle of a tour when we come there. I’ve got a gig at Ronnie’s two days after the gig at the Love Supreme Festival and then I’ll have a day off in between to hang out in London and see some friends so I’m looking forward to three days in England. I’m also doing a residency this year at the Royal Academy in London. It’s just a week each year. I was there in January and I’m going back again next year in either January or February, which I’ve been enjoying. So I’ve been getting a chance to be in England a few times a year and enjoying that a lot and being able to see friends. Good luck with the magazine. Good talking to you.
Dave Holland’s Prism appear at the 2014 Love Supreme Festival on Saturday 5th July in the Ronnie Scott’s Big Top at 8:15pm.
Dave Holland’s latest album Prism is available on his Dare2 label.
Dave Holland’s sheet music is available from his website, published by Lojac, along with transcriptions of his solos.