British-born bassist Dave Holland appears with pianist Kenny Barron, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Eric Harland in a Symphony Center Presents Jazz concert May 12.
How tired is Dave Holland of people asking him what it was like to work with Miles Davis? As it turns out, not at all. That’s what he claims, anyway, during a chat in advance of his SCP Jazz concert May 12 at Symphony Center with pianist Kenny Barron, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Eric Harland. And it’s easy to believe him. An affable conversationalist, Holland is happy to talk about anything and everything in his long and illustrious career — one that includes three Grammy Awards, an NEA Jazz Master designation and a book’s worth of other heady accomplishments.
Back to Davis for a moment: The legendary trumpeter was, not surprisingly, a pivotal figure in Holland’s budding career. Only in his early 20s when he joined Davis’ ensemble and played on a few of the mercurial virtuoso’s albums, including the seminal “Bitches Brew” in 1970, Holland absorbed all he could before splitting to do his own thing a few years later. “That opportunity was a defining moment in my life,” he says. “When I joined that extraordinary group, it just completely projected me into a whole other life and opportunity and level of playing. When you get around people playing on that level, you demand even more of yourself. Watching Miles, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and listening to how they would do things — how they communicated and the level of intensity and concentration and projection and assertion in the music — points the way for you to learn these things and hopefully integrate them into your own playing.”
Now 76 and still touring internationally, the former student has long been a master who regularly passes on his knowledge to young jazz artists. One of his central bits of wisdom: “Seek out the best players you can play with.” Along with practice and “an overwhelming desire to play this music,” it’s crucial for anyone who wants to up their game and play professionally.
“I've been so fortunate that people have taken the time to spend with me. That’s how this community works. We share knowledge with each other. And that’s how the music gets passed on from generation to generation.” — Dave Holland
Also key is intergenerational collaboration. While the jazz community is less tightly knit than it used to be, Holland says, the art form is still sustained to a large degree by inherited knowledge. A shining beneficiary of said knowledge, he never takes it for granted. “I've been so fortunate that people have taken the time to spend with me,” he says. “That’s how this community works. We share knowledge with each other. And that’s how the music grows and gets passed on from generation to generation. Certainly there are figureheads that make huge strides forward, but it comes out of the groundwork that’s being laid by all the other musicians in the community.”
Something else Holland believes in strongly is the interconnectedness of art and life. During a recent master class, he spoke about how playing music forces musicians to confront things about themselves they normally might not. Holland used his former shyness as an example. Music pushed him to “step out and be confident and make decisions as we played together to move the music forward. And that’s something that I had to develop. And in developing it, I found out some stuff about myself that helped me enjoy life more as well. I think music holds up a mirror to you, and you get to see a lot of things about yourself that maybe you wouldn’t see.”
Conversely, of course, life informs music. Every experience fills the proverbial well of inspiration. “As a young musician, I remember being told by older musicians, ‘You’ve got to tell a story,’ ” Holland says. “And as a young player, I wasn't quite sure what that meant. I was just trying to play the bass. But I found as I got older that, in fact, the notes are only notes. What’s behind the notes is the story you have to tell and what you’re feeling, and you want to express them in a seamless kind of connection.”
More than a half-century into one of the most successful careers in jazz, Holland is far from the twentysomething upstart who jammed with Miles and so many other jazz greats. A longtime member of their rarefied ranks, he has laurels aplenty on which to rest. But that’s not his style. In fact, Holland says, he feels as technically proficient and creatively vital as ever. “As long as I'm playing at the level that I want to play at, I’m going to keep going on,” he says. “It’s like tennis: At a certain point, you might say, Well, I can’t turn in the game that I used to be able to turn in, and maybe I’ll step back a little bit and modify my activities. But thankfully that hasn’t happened yet.”