Dave Holland has been in the top rank of jazz bassists since the late '60s, when Miles Davis plucked him from relative obscurity and recruited him to play with his quintet. In just under two years with the trumpeter, Holland performed on albums including Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way and Big Fun, before eventually departing to form Circle with saxophonist Anthony Braxton, keyboardist Chick Corea and drummer Barry Altschul. This began a lengthy working relationship with Braxton, much of which is documented on the recent Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton boxed set. Holland also recorded the legendary 1972 album Conference of the Birds, which featured Braxton, Altschul and saxophonist Sam Rivers.
The bassist recalls Braxton as "a conceptualist...He has very clear languages that he's working with in his writing and his playing." By contrast, Holland says of Davis, "Miles would sort of put something forward that he wanted to pursue, and then he would just let you go and fill in the gaps and do what you wanted to do."
Holland's been leading his own quintet since 1997, and in that role, he adopts a bit of each approach — while incorporating nods to Duke Ellington's use of the orchestra as instrument. The core quintet features saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibist Steve Nelson and drummer Nate Smith, but at various times Holland's expanded to a sextet, an octet and even a big band. Each lineup makes different demands on Holland as a composer and an arranger, something he regards as a pleasurable challenge.
"The more members you have in the group," he explains, "the more opportunity you have to orchestrate. With a smaller group, for instance, if one of the horns is soloing, there's only one other horn, so you can't do a lot of background work. The larger the group, the more you can do that — with three horns playing, you can almost simulate a big band sound.
"Each [instrument] has its own character, and the more personalities you have in the band, the more opportunities you have to create settings which suit those personalities," he continues. "When I'm writing for the quintet, I'm thinking about those particular players and what they're doing, what their style of playing is and how to give them a vehicle that will allow them to fully realize their creative vision within the composition. And of course in the larger group I have a much bigger array of players to work on, and they're all unique. [Saxophonist] Gary Smulyan's approach to soloing is different from Chris Potter's, which is different from Antonio Hart's."
Holland is just as concerned with commerce as art, as any jazz musician worth his salt must be in 2009. A few years ago he started his own label, Dare2, which licenses his music to Universal. He's put out three albums on the imprint — 2005's live big-band Overtime, 2006's Critical Mass with the quintet and last year's sextet session Pass It On, which featured regular collaborator Eubanks alongside pianist Mulgrew Miller, trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, saxophonist Hart and drummer Eric Harland.
Holland's just completed a weeklong stand at New York's Birdland with an octet lineup; recordings from the sessions will be released at some point. While he's still attached to the idea of CDs, he's planning to start selling digital music through Daveholland.com in the future — whether full-length albums or a few tracks here and there, like jazz 78s from the pre-LP era. The only thing he guarantees is a continuing stream of high-quality new music, which fans can hear at his upcoming concert.