I grab a Stan Getz CD off my shelf at random. Well, not completely, since I’m never not in the mood for Getz, and the disc is one of producer Joel Dorn’s Label M projects, where he digs up forgotten tapes from here and there — always worth hearing. So I slap on this item, My Foolish Heart (live, 1975), without scanning the personnel, and wander around while it plays.
On one long, fast number, Getz’s sax, per usual, is careening brilliantly through limitless vistas of bubbling craze. But when I’m in the can taking a leak, the rhythm section almost makes me miss. The drummer is slapping spare accents against the bassist, who’s right on top of Getz, matching him spark for spark like a jockey on the whip, each distinct note a counterpoint to the overall gallop. Now I really need to see the notes. 1) The tune is “Untitled” — Dorn has offered a reward to anyone who can identify it. 2) The drummer is Jack DeJohnette. 3) The bass player knew Mr. DeJ from their days with Miles Davis. His name is Dave Holland.
Oh. I just interviewed that guy.
Dave Holland has a way of sneaking up on me. Of course, he played on some of my favorite Miles albums (Filles de Kilimanjaro, At Fillmore and more). And when I start thinking about it, I remember him from especially great live shows: Sam Rivers, Charles Lloyd. Those were sideman appearances; in the last several years, though, he’s been hoarding so many awards both as an instrumentalist and as the leader of his own Quintet, you’d think he owned jazz outright. But nobody makes a big deal about it, least of all Holland himself. People have gotten so used to the flawlessness of his art, they just expect more of the same. And that creeps him out.
“I’ll quote a good friend of mine, Herbie Hancock,” says Holland in his hotel room before playing the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts in April. “He says that one has to be careful of expectations. Expectations lie very heavily on you, I think.”
Holland smiles most all the time, looks you in the eye. His lightly modulated English Midlands speech flows rhythmically. His mind is quick, but he never blurts out anything unconsidered, and he’s eager to credit others for their contributions. He avoids excessive use of stimulants. Too low-key — must be plotting something diabolical. Sneaky bastard!
One does wish that Holland would occasionally slash a pimp with a broken absinthe bottle; it would be useful publicity, since, despite all his accomplishments, he’s not one of the first 50 living jazz artists the average swinger would name. Bloodshed’s unlikely, though — all he cares about is music, and staying in a zone where he can make as much of it as possible.
He has a method. In the world of jazz, musicians flit around like bees. Holland, by contrast, looked back at the music that inspired him and saw that it often grew out of long-term relationships, like Ellington’s with the swoon-toned saxist Johnny Hodges, or Coltrane’s with the deep-pulsing drummer Elvin Jones.
Holland’s father left when Dave was young; maybe that has something to do with his passion for commitment. He dedicated himself to music when he was a toddler, plunking on the family ukulele; he dropped out of school to become a jazz/pop session man when he was 15, and continued to do gigs while sweating his classical chops in a music academy. Now 56, he’s been with his wife since he was a teen. He’s formed lasting musical associations with Getz, Rivers, Hancock, John Surman, John Abercrombie, Steve Coleman and Roy Haynes, among others. Many of his recordings have been with one label, ECM. His current Quintet has been together six years. Commitment.
“The whole key is finding the right people that can partake in the musical idea that you have and take it further,” says Holland. “And I feel that’s happening with the band I have now. It’s gone places I never dreamed.”
You’d expect him to say something like that, but six years in a jazz band means everybody’s happy, no question. Steve Nelson, Robin Eubanks and Billy Kilson have been in it from the beginning; saxist Chris Potter has replaced Steve Wilson.
“We like each other, we’re good friends,” says Holland. “We’ve been through a lot. Life and death.”
In Holland’s case, the death was that of his son, Jacob, who succumbed suddenly to encephalitis at the age of 28 in September 2000, after having just become a father himself. The three generations now live together in upstate New York.
“His daughter’s a great joy to us,” says Holland, “and the lady he married is a fine woman too, so in some ways that’s helped us deal with the loss.”
It’s clear when Holland’s Quintet is onstage at the Cerritos Center that this band is his other family — the only difference is that nobody’s lunging for the last slice of pizza. They all write; they all solo; sometimes it’s almost an updated Dixieland thing, with the lines tumbling over each other. Eubanks, buff in a tight red T, jerks his trombone slide through groovable but concise statements. Kilson is an ultraversatile drummer whose arms fly around at a supernatural remove from his grinning face. Potter’s saxophonics are an unusual combination of refined avant-garde overblowing techniques and behind-the-beat warmth; he tilts his eyes to the ceiling when soloing.
Aside from Holland, whose supple propulsion and unpredictable note choices are simply unassailable, the guy you watch most is Nelson. A bespectacled prof in a wilted white shirt, he attacks his vibraphone and marimba as if they were swarming with deadly insects. Shocking enough are the cataclysmic mallet runs he discovers while soloing, but listen to the textures and harmonies he creates while comping behind somebody else: This guy makes pianos seem obsolete.
“Steve surprises me every night,” says Holland. “He’s one of the great improvisers, I think. He’s got such an original way of thinking — very brilliant, very sensitive to what the group needs.”
The audience, too smart for lounge jazz and too nervous for the New Age, applauds steadily. This stuff is intellectual, but best appreciated for its civilized sensuality. Musically trained listeners will be tempted to count out the Dave Holland Quintet’s time signatures. Don’t try, it will only make you cry.
Dave Holland is from Wolverhampton, near Birmingham, in England’s industrial belt. Growing up poor, he considered working in the factories, which was pretty much the only alternative to starvation.
“And then I said, wait a minute, I can make a living playing this music,” says Holland. “I was making a few dollars a night anyway, and I said, Oh, this’ll work. There weren’t any real precedents for professional musicians around me, so it had just never occurred to me. But there’s a long history, particularly in England, of authors and artists and musicians coming from those circumstances. In some ways, that background creates a longing for something else.”
What qualified him? “Really, the main instrument that a musician has is his ear.”
And what pushed him toward jazz? “Somebody called it brink-of-disaster music. I like to live a little dangerously. It’s that idea of people sitting on the edge of their seats, wondering if it’s actually going to be pulled off.”
Jazz can mean financial as well as aesthetic disaster. Holland was a pretty determined avant-gardist at one time, playing with the likes of Anthony Braxton — always bank-balance poison. Eventually, he decided to put everything he ever liked into his music. In rediscovering his own breadth, he connected with a wider audience. Though he didn’t plan it that way.
“The only difficulties I’ve had are because of musical choices I’ve made. Rather than taking the more lucrative gigs, I’ve often taken the harder road, and it’s not always been easy on myself and my family. But they’ve been 100 percent supportive. I’ve always found that the more commitment you have to your beliefs, the stronger you are in terms of what you do.”
In Holland’s case, that’s very, very strong.