Dave Holland

Following the release of Good HopeDave Holland in this exclusive interview mentions details of two new records to be released in 2020: one to come in Feb-March called Without Deception the bassist with pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Johnathan Blake that accompanies a concurrent tour, plus, towards the end of next year, a second album that features guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire. The interview also touches on Gnu High, the essence of the raga, and walking the walk – talking the Leroy Vinnegar talk. 

Speaking on the phone Dave says that he is probably going to go to the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly later today to look at an exhibition, and then tomorrow he will have lunch with his long-time friend, the saxophonist and composer Evan Parker.

He takes me back first of all to the Wolverhampton of his youth and mentions as a young boy playing the ukulele, being into skiffle, early rock ’n’ roll and taking up guitar. He learned “everything by ear’’ he says, and later took some lessons but it was listening to the radio in his house that he learned most from: “We had an old radio, I spent a lot of time turning the dial slowly to stations from all over the world.’’


He listened to everything from Elvis and Bill Haley to Cliff Richard. “I didn’t catch up on Ray Charles and Bo Diddley until later.’’

Dave started gigging aged 13 at his local youth club playing “rhythm guitar.” He also listened to Lonnie Donegan but did not at that time know about Lead Belly, although he mentions listening to Josh White, the great anti-segregation singer who hailed from Greenville, South Carolina.

On television Dave watched Sunday Night at the London Palladium and says that he had his “first exposure to Duke Ellington’’ through watching the show. Gigging a lot from he was a young teen Dave says that there was not much time for homework and instead he left school at 15. He started in his jazz listening by turning on to Ray Brown and bought the records that Brown was on with Oscar Peterson. “They changed my life,’’ Dave says. He started playing the acoustic bass later. And yet still in his teens he worked in a dance band in the Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough. “We played to dancing, and it was the Beatles, Chuck Berry, foxtrots, waltzes, ballroom dancing, Basie charts – and we had a book of 300 pieces.’’

In the afternoons when he was off he taught himself how to read music and then with the band there was much more to play all in a day’s work including Sousa marches.

Dave got a gig with the American singer Johnnie Ray who had number 1 hits in the UK in the 1950s with ‘Such a Night’ and ‘Walking in the Rain’ but is possibly most renowned for the still startling ‘Cry’ some radio stations still regularly play: “A pop singer at the time. I took the gig and went on the road.’’

Dave says Bobby Wellins [the saxophonist of later Under Milk Wood fame] was in the band and he left and “another man of Greek heritage’’ joined later who would offer Dave a chance to play in a Greek restaurant in central London’s Victoria district and which then began his experience of the London music scene which he would become immersed in before moving to live in the United States.

Dave explains that his initiation into the world of Ronnie Scott’s, which this month celebrates its 60th birthday and where on its later Frith Street premises he would be heard and recruited by Miles Davis: “One Sunday off I went to Ronnie Scott’s then on Gerrard Street and there was a picture outside of an African American guitarist who was playing.’’

Dave did not realise it until he walked in and then spent the night on the front table that he would be listening to Wes Montgomery who happened to be playing with bassist Malcolm Cecil and pianist Stan Tracey who for many years was the ‘house pianist’ at Scott’s.

“I wanted to learn bass even more and started talking to bass players and getting tips on how to hold my hands.’’

Dave took lessons in 1963-4 with James Edward Merritt, the original bass player of the Philharmonia and later the BBC Symphony Orchestra who invited him to apply to Guildhall, a classical conservatoire based in London where in those days jazz was discouraged. Dave won a scholarship and small maintenance allowance “which wasn’t enough to live on but helped a bit,’’ he explains. And so he continued to go up to Scarborough for summertime dates while a student. “Guildhall didn’t approve of jazz and there was an understanding that you weren’t doing it because they saw it as detrimental.’’ He says he could see it from that point of view but it “didn’t stop me from doing gigs.’’ He mentions how he also played in London pubs at that time and that there was a New Orleans revival going on. Acker Bilk with ‘Stranger on the Shore’ went to number 1 and Kenny Ball rendering ‘Midnight in Moscow’ made number 2 in both the UK and the US pop charts.

Dave’s interests were more modern and he worked with many British musicians in that domain. As for drummers who he played with at the time he says that he did play responding to a suggestion with Phil Seamen a few times and warms to the theme as he mentions John Marshall and Tony Oxley.

“In 1966 I met with my own generation of musicians like John Surman, Mike Osborne and Chris McGregor’’ (explaining that Chris was a bit older). Liking the modern style: ‘‘Coltrane, Ornette, Cecil Taylor – I was buying their records and studying and making my own attempts at adopting the music.’’

Dave says he played with the great Jamaican free form saxophonist Joe Harriott a few times and he brings up the West Indian player Ross Henderson who had a steel pan band.

In terms of Coltrane and his Eastern interests the scales associated with Indian music appealed to him and Dave was buying what later would be called world music including African records on the UNESCO series and music from all over the world including from the Middle East and China.

To this day and the release of Good Hope most topically plus earlier collaborations with Anouar Brahem notably late-1990s album Thimar Dave has continued his explorations and creative responses to a wide range of styles and traditions.

In the London of the 1960s he would go to concerts of visiting musicians from around the globe, and it was the rhythmic things that interested him he explains. He listened to Ravi Shankar records although did not see Ravi live and also liked the music of the father of his Crosscurrents trio bandmate Zakir Hussain, the deeply revered Alla Rakha.

Dave explains that in Indian music “the raga is another word for scale and each represents a mood: a decoration and dedication.’’

His interest is piqued by the “alternative structures’’ inherent in the language of Indian music and the rhythms’ developmental progress. And, for instance, in the way the rhythm divides into beats with syncopation and rhythms crossing over within that.

In essence Indian music he explains has “cycles’’ at its heart and very long metrical form that then subdivides. He says that you cannot count as you play: you have to feel the music “better to hear and feel the scale’’. And further elucidating he compares the discipline of writing words to not involving at all any thoughts about the letters of the alphabet as writing takes place. It’s not thinking about numbers or in the case of the alphabet letters: more about expressing otherwise “identifying inhibits.’’

Holland’s discography is huge and so the conversation turns for reasons of concision to some highlights. It is staggering thinking about this afterwards who Holland has played with over the years and who we do not have time to talk about who include Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny and Chick Corea –  to have a chance to linger on the classic recordings Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way and Filles de Kilimanjaro that Dave appears on with Miles.

Instead turning for a moment to Gnu High a 1976 released record that Dave made with Keith Jarrett, Kenny Wheeler who he later would appear with on the all-star 1990s classic Angel Song and completing the band his great friend Jack DeJohnette. Dave remembers the recording for the ECM label as “a concentrated six hours.’’ Kenny, he says, was “hands off’’ unlike when he operates as a leader himself or for that matter when Keith or Jack do. “There was not a lot of rehearsing, we just let it happen. So my memories are: it was heads down. It is in the list of my own favourite recordings. There was a certain magic in the air.’’

As for Jack DeJohnette he says that he most recently worked with Jack on a recording led by saxophonist Tia Fuller and he says that “we live close to each other in the Hudson Valley.’’ With Jack and the much missed John Abercrombie Dave completed the band Gateway and speaks of the Chicago concert that Gateway got back together again to play during Jack’s 70th birthday celebrations a little. “I saw John a few times before he died. It was a big loss. He was a good friend and he was funny and warm.’’

Speaking of Evan Parker whenever in London he tries to meet up with Evan if the saxophonist is also around and who he has known since 1966 when they were playing together in the Little Theatre in the West End, the players passing through who also included Trevor Watts and Kenny Wheeler. Dave says he used to go round to “Evan’s apartment and listen to records’’ and expresses his admiration for his friend’s creative achievements over the years.

‘There was a certain magic in the air’

– Dave Holland on Gnu High

Speaking of Uncharted Territories their album with Craig Taborn and Ches Smith that came out last year Dave says that he had never played such open fully improvised music throughout before. He was happy to work with Evan initially as a duo and raised funds for the Vortex club in east London a venue he says “gives a platform for new musicians’’ and he borrows from Ornette to call the initiative when new musicians perform ‘The Shape of Jazz To Come’ (an album that is 60 years old in 2019).

‘’The funds we raised are still being used.’’

On Uncharted Territories with Evan, Dave recruited pianist Craig Taborn who he calls “an incredibly creative player’’ and percussionist Ches Smith who he had not previously worked with before.

They recorded 5 and a ½ hours’ worth of music, a double album’s length of which has already been released that contains enough he says for a further record. He hopes to play together and record with the Uncharted Territories players again.

The new record Good Hope released on pianist Dave Stapleton’s Edition records was recorded at Sear Sound in New York, and Dave says he has recorded there before on “quite a few’’ occasions with his band Aziza and Prism. Dave speaks of the vintage microphones there and the special sound and how “very comfortable’’ it is. 

As the interview moves to a natural conclusion as well as mentioning the new records indicated at the beginning of the article coming up soon Dave says how happy speaking of his recent work, which has also included collaborations renewed again with Anouar Brahem on Blue Maqams how the work in its “diversity represents what I want to do.’’

Beyond music Dave says he likes to read books on history, novels, sci-fi and scientific books, also books about neuroscience and that he “reads a lot as we travel’’. He also likes the magazines The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

What goes around comes around and the conversation concludes with a word on Leroy Vinnegar whose Leroy Walks! and Leroy Walks Again!! Dave liked as a young man along with the sound of Ray Brown.  He says to my surprise that he even is “kind of the guardian of Leroy’s bass’’ and explains why because Leroy’s partner had reached out to him about his bass after he passed away wanting the bass to go to someone who would not just buy it for a trophy to hang on a wall or something. Dave looked at photos of it and it turned out when he got it to have a look at that it was the bass on the cover of the records that he liked all those years ago.

The luthier David Gage then spent a year repairing it and Dave acts as its custodian and the bass is currently on the Gage premises where Dave says players who visit are encouraged to play on it and he mentions to his delight Ron Carter and John Patitucci availing of the opportunity. Leroy “lives.’’ SG 

Good Hope is out now. The Crosscurrents trio play Cadogan Hall within the EFG London Jazz Festival on 17 November