Few jazz bassists can match the pedigree of Dave Holland, thanks to his work with Miles Davis, Stan Getz and just about everyone else. Here's a vintage interview with Dave from the BP archives...

Dave Holland has played electric and acoustic bass for five decades with some of the greatest names in jazz. Born in 1946 and a star by his mid-twenties, he has performed with such an array of influential musicians – and in so many different bands – that it’s hard to describe his contribution in a few words. Look at the map of jazz history and he’s all over it.

The Dave Holland Quintet (featuring Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on marimba and vibraphone, Chris Potter on alto/tenor saxophone and Nate Smith on drums) has scooped several Grammy awards in its decade-plus as a working unit, and for good reason. As Holland explains, much of the group’s success is due to the tight working relationship of its members: “Everybody’s an active composer as well as a performer, and between us we’ve got a wide range of compositional approaches going on, which makes for a very interesting range of music. The group’s very much a collective, both in the spirit and the way the music comes across – we’re all people who really enjoy the communal aspect of music and having a strong dialog in the music.”

Having worked with some – shall we say – ‘strong’ characters over his career, Holland chooses nowadays to apply his bass skills with people whose company he enjoys. No more intra-band struggles for him, he explains: “We have a lot of fun, which we hope the audience can share. When I did the Prime Directive album (2000), the reason I chose that title was because I decided that everything I did from that moment on was going to be enjoyable! We weren’t going to deal with any problem situations in the group. Internally, you want to have a group of people who really get along well and can get through the tough situations that inevitably come up when you’re touring – people who are focused on trying to make it as positive an experience for everyone as possible.”

After so long as an in-demand bass player, can Holland look back and see how his playing style has evolved over the decades? “That’s kind of hard – to step completely outside it,” he muses. “It’s gone through a lot of different stages. I’m trying to crystallize what I’m doing in some ways: to try and play the essence of the music as much as I can. I’ve done a lot of work with musicians who are not jazz musicians and who I’ve learned from too. My association with Anwar Ibrahim, the oud player from Tunisia, has been very interesting for me, and I’ve learned a lot from Anwar about Arabic music. A lot of those things have crept their way into my writing and approach to playing. Not that I’m trying to play literally in that style, but some of the sounds and the rhythms and the atmosphere of that music certainly captivated me, as has a recent project with Spanish gypsy flamenco musicians, particularly the patriarch of the family, Pepe Habichuela. We’ve just finished recording a project with that group. It’s been a great experience for me to learn about flamenco music from a master like Pepe. So those things keep feeding the fire, as they say.”

Holland is certainly playing rather differently to the way he did when he first applied fingers to strings professionally. In the early 60s, when the beat boom was raging and all eyes in the music business were pointed at Merseyside, a fertile skiffle and rock’n’roll scene was growing in the Birmingham area. Like so many other bass players of his generation, Holland started out as a guitarist before making the switch. “I was a skiffle and rock’n’roll-educated guitar player who basically played chords – I wasn’t a lead guitarist or anything,” he recalls. “I was in a little band when I was 13, with three guitars, a vocalist and a drummer, and we decided that we wanted a bass player. I volunteered for the job and got myself a bass guitar. That’s what introduced me to bass playing.”

Holland took up the acoustic bass two years later and quickly evolved a deft style that turned heads at gigs. Recognition of a limited sort followed, he remembers: “When I was 15 and trying to develop a band in the Birmingham area, we had some success – there was a weekly local TV show on which we did cover versions of Top 20 songs, and we’d have pop stars come and sing with us. We never elevated ourselves beyond that, partly because we didn’t have original material, so we did covers of well-known songs, but there was a period when we were trying to get a record contract. I toured on bass guitar with Roy Orbison once around ’66 or ’67, but I considered myself primarily an acoustic bass player, pretty much from the time I was 17 or 18. And I still do.”

Back then, one possible trail to stardom was the one blazed by the Beatles in 1962, via a residency – involving multiple sets a day – at Hamburg’s Star-Club, situated in the city’s notorious Reeperbahn. “In 1963 we got an offer to go to Hamburg, which we thought was our ticket to ride, so to speak!” he chuckles. “We thought if we went to Hamburg we’d follow the Beatles to success. We were very naive. Anyway, I couldn’t go because you had to be 18 to work in these red light district clubs, so they took another bass player and left me behind. I took a job playing acoustic bass for the summer season in Scarborough, which was where I turned the corner.”

“I was out of work and I went to a jazz club,” continues Holland, “and I saw a tenor player who was a local bandleader, and was taking a big band to Scarborough, and we started chatting. He found out that I was a bass player and asked me if I wanted to come and audition. I somehow stumbled my way through the audition, although I couldn’t read music at all, but I got the gig because he was pretty desperate. But he said he heard something that he liked.”

Suddenly, Holland was a working jazz bassist – a reversal of the rock’n’roll direction which had been pointing him in the direction of northern Germany. Later, the same bandleader revealed that Holland’s future as one of the greats of jazz had been predicted: “He told me that one of the saxophone players in the band had said to him that I was going to end up with Miles Davis. I was stunned when he told me that, but he assured me that he was telling me the truth. I guess that sax player had heard something that he liked. It was an interesting prophecy that eventually came true!”

After moving to London in 1964 and scoring a regular slot at Ronnie Scott’s as a sideman for the visiting jazzers, Holland debuted as a recording artist: a notable early session was laid down for the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s 1968 LP, Karyobin. One life-changing evening that same year, Holland was playing at Scott’s in support of pianist Bill Evans and his trio when Evans’ sometime collaborator, Miles Davis, dropped in to lend his support. “I was in the support group with Elaine Delmar and John Marshall,” remembers Holland, “and I didn’t think Miles would be listening to us, but as I was going into the last set of the night, [drummer] Philly Joe Jones – who was living in London during that period, and who I knew – came to me as I was getting on the bandstand and said, ‘Dave, I want to tell you something: Miles wants you to join his band!’”

As you’d expect, Holland was stunned. “I was absolutely speechless for a second and I thought he was joking, but then I realized that he wasn’t,” he continues. “Philly Joe said, ‘You need to speak to him after the set,’ but when I went to look for Miles after the gig, he’d gone to his hotel. I got a message to call him the next day, but when I did he’d left the hotel and gone back to New York, so for a couple of weeks I had no information and I didn’t know what was going on. Of course, half of London was calling me and asking what was happening! A couple of weeks later I got a call from his agent, asking me if I could be in New York in two days to start working with Miles...”

Once settled in NYC, Holland was given three weeks with Herbie Hancock, Davis’s keyboard player, to learn the set which the band were playing at the time. He didn’t actually meet Miles until the band were on stage together, he recalls: “I got to the club and I was a little bit shy, and was waiting to see what was happening – and the next thing I knew, everyone got on the bandstand and I got up there with them. Nobody told me what we were going to play or anything – Miles just started. That was what he always did: he just started each set with a trumpet phrase, or some way of cueing it in. And that was it!”

Didn’t the late, famously irascible trumpeter even tell the band what key he wanted to play the song in? “No, no, I was expected to know,” says Holland. “He didn’t say anything. He just started playing! There was no, ‘We’re going to play this, this and this’ or ‘It’s going to be in this key’ or any of that. But that was the tradition at that time – you were supposed to do your homework. You were supposed to know the songs: certainly the ones that had been recorded. If you got a gig with somebody like Miles, you were expected to do the background work so that when you got on stage you were ready, you know? I did as much work as I could and tried to be as ready as I could.”

The previous incumbent on bass in Davis’s band had been the legendary Ron Carter: big boots to fill by anybody’s standards. Still, Holland – despite being barely more than a talented kid – knew better than to attempt to copy Carter’s style. “I was 21 years old,” explains Holland, “so I was still discovering what my own thing was. I had various influences that I built on as a young player, and Ron was one of them – and I was starting to have some of my own ideas about music and what I wanted to do, but I think I’d already realized at that age that you can’t replicate anybody else’s playing. You have to really play your own way, although of course you learn from other people, and Ron had set a certain standard in the group. If I had gone in and tried to be another Ron Carter, which I couldn’t have been anyway – I would have failed – I don’t think that’s what Miles was looking for.”

If you’ve read Davis’s book, Miles: The Autobiography, you’ll know that he didn’t gladly suffer anyone who didn’t match up to his high standards. Was Holland intimidated by the great man, we wonder? “I wouldn’t say ‘intimidated’ – that’s a word that shows fear – but I was certainly in awe of him,” says Holland, “and I had deep respect for him to the point where I found it very difficult at the beginning to talk to him. He defused that very well: he invited me to his house many times in those first months that I was with the band. We’d cook food and talk about music, or whatever was interesting to him, and maybe play something. He really made efforts to settle me down and get me to feel welcome.”

Cooking with Miles (pun intended) did the trick, and the youthful bass player soon found his place in the band. Holland knew that he was expected to contribute his own voice, saying: “Miles always wanted people to come to their own conclusion about the music and make their own contribution, and not just try to be a bad carbon-copy of someone who had already played in the band. Wayne Shorter didn’t come into the band and try and play like John Coltrane, for example. I knew the history of that rhythm section and how it functioned – at least from the records – and so that was to some degree a guide for me. After that, I said, ‘Well, now I’ve got to find my own way’.”

Did the fact that Holland was English – the first ever musician from these shores to play in Davis’s band – make him a better candidate for recruitment? “I don’t think any of that mattered to him,” shrugs Holland. “All that mattered to him was what he heard. He didn’t know me: he didn’t know who I was. As far as he was concerned, he wanted to give me a chance to try playing with his band, and if it hadn’t worked out I’d probably have been told, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll call you – don’t call us’. But as it worked out, he was happy with what I was doing and he gave me a chance to find my way. For the first couple of nights, maybe for the first week or two, I was still finding my place, and he was patient and let me do that. He could see that I was going in that direction, and he gave me the space to develop and to find my feet.”

The new band soon hit the ground running, with Chick Corea replacing Hancock and striking up a friendship with Holland. The first recording sessions were for the Filles De Kilimanjaro LP, on which Holland played acoustic bass on two songs. Regarded nowadays as a bridge between Davis’s more traditional acoustic music and the electric fusion which followed, Filles was an early triumph for Holland – but would he have played the bass parts differently nowadays?

“Well, of course I would!” he replies. “If I look back even five years, I would probably do things differently. That’s always the case with anybody involved in creative work. You change, and your judgements change, just like they do in your life. As your experiences inform you about what to do and how to do things, you change your approach. Certainly, at this stage, at 63 years of age, I’ve learned a lot of things since I was 21 – but when I look back at what I did, I feel that it’s representative and that’s what counts. It seemed to be working, and that’s it. Of course, there’s always more to do: I try not to second-guess myself. I do a project and I move on. I don’t do a lot of looking back and examining it and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, should I have done this?’ and all that. I look at the work as a work in progress, always. You move onto the next step, and whatever it was, that was what it was. You let it be and say, ‘OK, I did the best I could in that situation – let me see what I can do next; what can I learn from that; where can I go from there?’ That, to me, is what the development of a musician is about.”

For fans of Miles Davis’s electric music, his peak came with two key albums – 1969’s In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew from the following year. Holland played on both of these classic LPs, which helped to advance the cause of jazz-rock fusion into the 70s, its most popular decade. By this point Holland had switched from acoustic bass to bass guitar, adding a wah pedal for added tonal versatility. How did this radical change come about? “The music was Miles’s idea, of course,” recalls Holland, “and we’d utilized a very fine electric bass player, Harvey Brooks, on some of the Bitches Brew sessions along with my acoustic bass. Some of the music really started to sound to me like it needed an electric bass in order to provide the tonal setting for the music – with the weight that the electric bass has, and the definition – and so around that period I said, ‘Look, I think it would be great if I played bass guitar on some of these songs,’ and that’s what I did.”

Pivotal as Holland’s decision to switch to electric was for jazz fusion, and legendary as those albums remain to this day, it marked the beginning of the end of his time in the band. “For the next year and a half or so,” he continues, “I was progressively and slowly working more and more on bass guitar, and less and less on acoustic. It was one of the reasons why I decided to leave the group and to focus back again more on the acoustic bass: also, there was other music that I was wanting to pursue.”

So how do you hand in your notice to a man like Miles? “Ha ha!” laughs Holland. “We were doing a gig at Madison Square Garden, and what happened was that Chick Corea – with whom I’d become very good friends – had decided to leave the group at the same time as me, so we could start a new group, which we called Circle. We’d been doing a bit of work on that in our off-time, so we both said to Miles, ‘We’re going to be leaving the group’. He said, ‘Why do you wanna do that? We’re just starting to make some money!’”

Davis wasn’t serious, Holland thinks: “He said it partly tongue in cheek – he knew that we’d made our decision – but he didn’t say much else. I could see where he was coming from, though: we’d put a lot of groundwork in, developing the music, and we were just starting to play these huge venues like the Isle Of Wight. I don’t know if he wished us luck, or whatever, but he didn’t give us a bad feeling about it. I think he would have liked us to stay in the band some time longer, certainly, because the group had a vibe and we’d been together for quite a while. I think he wanted that to go on, but Miles knows – just as any developed musician knows – that when it’s time to move on, you move on. You don’t try and persuade a musician to stay in a group if he or she has decided to move on to something else.”