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Dave Holland remembers Mingus and discusses his own long and varied path as one of the jazz world’s most revered bass players.
World-renowned bassist, composer, bandleader and independent label owner Dave Holland has, over the course of five decades, tackled a dizzying array of diverse projects, a testament to his remarkable open-mindedness, musical flexibility and desire to constantly evolve as a musician. Approaching his 75th birthday on October 1, the 2017 NEA Jazz Master has seen a prodigious recorded output in the past decade, a brief survey of which includes 2013’s Prism with Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn and Eric Harland; duets with piano great Kenny Barron on 2014’s The Art of the Conversation; 2019’s Good Hope with his Crosscurrents Trio featuring Chris Potter and tabla master Zakir Hussain; and last year’s Another Land, his electrifying trio with guitarist Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire. A majority of these titles were recorded on his Dare2 Records.This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Holland’s landmark recording, Conference of the Birds, his debut as a leader which teamed him with avant-garde legends Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton and his Circle bandmate, drummer Barry Altschul.With more than 45 albums to his credit as a leader or co-leader, and another 100 or so as a sideman (including albums by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson), Holland continues to seek out fresh and exciting projects with innovative players, the latest being his collaboration with saxophonist Walter Smith III, guitarist Matthew Stevens, pianist Kris Davis and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington on In Common III (Whirlwind), which was released in March.Holland called from his home in Saugerties in upstate New York a few days before flying to San Francisco in April to play duets with guitarist John Scofield, a frequent collaborator with whom he’s recorded in various settings. Our wide-ranging chat covered myriad topics, chief among them the towering influence of Charles Mingus.
JAZZIZ is celebrating Mingus’ 100th birthday with a special issue. Did you see him perform at Ronnie Scott’s in London during your tenure as house bassist there from 1966-1968? And did you have any encounters with Mingus after you moved to New York? Well, I'll backtrack for a minute. When I was about 16, just leaving school to become a professional full-time musician, I was listening to jazz records by Django Reinhardt because I was still thinking about guitar and a friend who was in a rock ’n’ roll band turned me on to Django. Then I started exploring other things. I went to the music store and saw Ray Brown’s name winning the Downbeat poll for bass, so I went and got a couple of records of him with Oscar Peterson [Affinity and Night Train]. I also found these two Leroy Vinnegar records on Contemporary where he was the bandleader [Leroy Walks! and Leroy Walks Again!!]. I took those four records home and, man, that was my bible for quite a while. I was still playing only bass guitar then, but then I got an acoustic bass and started practicing with the records, and that set me on another path. The next two records I got from that same record store were by Charles Mingus. I didn’t know anything about him or his music when I was 16, but I bought Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Now, if you can imagine the impact those records had on me after listening to the Oscar Peterson Trio and Django Reinhardt, it was transformative. I mean, I had never heard anything with that kind of spirit and feel and looseness, but also arranged. Those two records were extraordinary records, for me. The large ensemble on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady … I mean, I’d never heard a large group play with so much freedom in it as well. To my ear, there was some similarity to Duke Ellington, where you have written parts and then people improvising over it and things like that. But it was a whole new revelation to me and, of course, set me on a Mingus listening period. And really, I’m still in that. But I had a period where I was trying to play just like that. Of course, I was also trying to play like Ray Brown. I failed at everything, but in the process of trying you learn something, and you find the elements that you can incorporate into your playing.From those first two Mingus records you acquired, you must’ve gone back and checked out Mingus Ah Um and Blues and Roots and all his other classics.Yeah, and, of course, when I got to Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, which introduced me to his work with Eric Dolphy … I mean, that was a whole other thing. So that was all when I was still living in London. He didn’t come to Ronnie Scott’s while I was working there. I don’t even remember him visiting London, but if he did I didn’t get to his concert. I was just listening to the records. And when I got to New York [August 4, 1968], of course, Mingus was high on my list of people to go and see. He used to play a gig with his quintet at the Top of the Gate, which was a smaller venue at the Village Gate, a kind of club atmosphere. Jaki Byard was in the band, which was always fun to see them play together. Dannie Richmond was on drums, of course, and there were various horn players that he would have in the band. And I just was fascinated by watching him play, getting to see how he addressed the instrument. He had such a beautiful technique and so relaxed, particularly his right hand, his pizzicato hand. It was like a butterfly fluttering, to me. It had a grace, and when he’d hit those fast tempos it would all be so loose and relaxed but driving like crazy. It was a big lesson to watch him play. As far as my encounters with him, I treated him with a great deal of respect, of course, because of my respect for him generally. But also, I had heard a lot of stories, as we all had, about his temperament and his volatility. He had many shades. He was a complicated man, as far as I understood. He had a gentle side, but he also had quite a temper. I heard stories about him berating musicians, stopping the band in the middle of the set and yelling at them, even punching out a musician that worked with him. So these things didn’t make me feel like I could be very familiar with him. So when I saw him I would respectfully say hello to him. But the one encounter that really stayed with me was on my 30th birthday, in 1976, when I was playing at the Village Vanguard for the week with Betty Carter. It was a great group with Clifford Barbaro on drums and John Hicks on piano. And my goodness, what an amazing musician Betty was. Extraordinary woman and an extraordinary person. Talk about taking charge and being a bandleader and setting an example, she was certainly one of those people. Anyway, a lot of people came down to the Vanguard to see Betty that week. Cecil Taylor was there, Mingus came in. So on the night of my birthday, I’m in the dressing room, which of course at the Vanguard is the kitchen. So I’m there with Betty and Charles Mingus comes in, and he starts talking to Betty. And then he comes over to me and I say, “Good evening, Mr. Mingus.” And he just said something very nice to me, a kind of personal thing that I’d like to remain personal. And it was the best birthday present I could have gotten. After that, I saw him in Europe. We’d be at festivals at the same time and I would say hello to him, but I never had an intimate conversation with him. I was kind of shy to enter into it, but he always gave me a nice vibe.Is there any particular Mingus composition that stunned you?Yes, there is a piece of music he wrote when he was 17 [in 1939] called “Half-Mast Inhibition.” It’s completely through-composed and has a lot of, let’s say, non-jazz related instruments in the ensemble. It’s a major work that I think people should know about. It’s an extraordinary work on its own, and when you consider it came from the creative mind of a 17-year-old musician, it’s really amazing. And the reason I knew about it was I went up to the New England Conservatory, where I teach twice a year for a week each semester, and Ken Shaphorst, the head of jazz studies at NEC, presented a concert of this piece there. When he was getting ready to rehearse it, he asked me if I had ever heard it. When I told him I hadn’t, he played me the 1960 recording of the piece, which was conducted by Gunther Schuller, who started the Third Stream program at New England Conservatory. And I was just stunned by the quality of the writing. I mean, at 17, it was so mature and so beautifully constructed. The other record I want to mention is Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus [recorded in October 1960]. I heard that quite early on and, of course, I was aware of the situation with civil rights in America. Mingus’ protest song “Fables of Faubus” was on that record. He tried to record it the year before [on 1959’s Mingus Ah Um], but Columbia refused to put it out with the lyrics so it was just done as an instrumental on that album. Mingus ended up putting it out with the lyrics the following year [on Candid Records, founded by esteemed jazz critic Nat Hentoff]. That same year, 1960, he and Max Roach organized an alternative festival at Newport [known as the Newport Rebels Festival]. Mingus was ahead of his time, not only in terms of establishing his own publishing company and his own record label in the ’50s [Debut Records, founded in 1952], but in expressing his feelings about the injustices against African-Americans, which came across in the music that he wrote. These were all eye-opening things for me as a young British bass player, realizing more and more how much the conditions and the cultural context out of which jazz had emerged at the beginning of the 20th century resonated so much in the music. And it also was the way that African-American people could preserve their identity in the face of a lot of opposition. I felt the same way about the flamenco musicians I’ve played and recorded with some years ago. They also were persecuted people and their music was one of the ways they preserved their cultural identity. It’s something I talk a lot about with young musicians that I work with at schools; to understand that this music is not just entertainment, it’s also about expressing yourself, it’s about talking about life and how we feel. And that’s what comes through in Mingus’ music, I think. His music is so passionate. It’s tender, it’s violent, it’s courageous. It’s got all those emotions in it. Mingus’ music was very detailed, he had specific things he wanted to achieve with his bands, but there was also a great deal of freedom in there for the players. I’m sure that had an impact on your own Grammy-winning big band projects, 2002’s What Goes Around and 2005’s Over Time.Absolutely. That whole tradition from the early New Orleans days, which was embodied in Mingus’ music and also Duke Ellington’s music … I just think that music’s timeless. The way that they worked with the personalities that they had in their band and crafted the music around those personalities to give vehicles for them to work with definitely was something that made an impression on me. I mean, I don’t want to draw comparisons with my work and Ellington’s or Mingus’. They’re in a category of their own. But elements of what I heard in their music certainly gave me a lot to think about. Another composer that impacted you early on was trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. You talked about how when you came to New York you were turning a lot of musicians onto his 1968 recording, Windmill Tilter: Story of Don Quixote.I was, including Miles. I was living fairly close to Miles’ building on the Upper West Side and would go over there to visit on invitation. And so I took that record over for him to hear and he enjoyed listening to it. I also played it for Dave Liebman, who was living above me in the same loft building on 19th Street at the time, and for Michael Brecker, who lived on 18th Street. There was a roof connecting our two buildings, so Michael would climb out of his kitchen window and then walk across the roof and climb into my kitchen window to visit me and my wife, Clare. One night I played him Windmill Tilter and Mike was amazed by the beauty of this music. The writing was so incredible, the way Kenny used mixed voicings. It wasn’t just brass and saxes, it was all mixed up and just a brilliant way of orchestrating for The John Dankworth Orchestra. That was one of the few recordings I’d done before I came to New York, and I was very taken by Kenny’s writing. His harmonic development that he had in his writing was a huge inspiration to me, how he connected up harmonies and melodies and things like that. It gave me a chance to understand another way of creating harmonic movement, a contemporary way of doing it which wasn’t being done a lot in the ’60s. Composers like Wayne Shorter and Herbie were also following their direction and reinventing how harmony could be constructed, but Kenny had his own way. All the years that I had a chance to play with him, up to when he died, were always inspirational to me and influenced aspects of my writing. This year marks the 50th anniversary of your album Conference of the Birds, which so many bass players list as an album that inspired them to think about harmonic movement and melody in a different way. What can you tell us about that landmark recording?The music on that record was informed by a few different things. I was just coming off the project called Circles, which we had with Chick Corea and Barry Altschul and Anthony Braxton, and some of those pieces on that record, I think two or three of them, had been written during that group’s existence but had never been recorded. So I had this music. And when I had the offer from Manfred Eicher to do a band record — after I’d done the bass duet record with Barre Phillips for ECM [1971’s Music From Two Basses] and also recorded an album with Chick and Barry called A.R.C., and we brought out the only real record of Circle, the live Paris-Concert — I thought I’d like to use the people I had been playing with, which was Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul. Chick was involved in something different at that point. But I was also working in a trio setting with Sam Rivers and Barry, so it made a lot of sense to bring those three people together — Sam, Anthony and Barry. They were people I really wanted to continue playing with, and did continue playing with, individually and in their groups. The other pieces I wrote for the record were influenced more by my work with Circle and the things that I was listening to at the time, like Cecil Taylor’s music and Ornette Coleman’s music. Because it wasn’t closed-form music. It wasn’t forms that were set, over which we improvised, they were open forms and didn’t have involved chord sequences in them. They had motifs and harmony in the themes, but what we did after those themes was improvised, with some anchor points that were created. But to step out and to try and take responsibility for putting a record together with a band was a great experience for me. Being a bass player, leading a group is not the first thing you think about that you’re going to do. And so, it was a challenge. I wasn’t ready to be a bandleader at that time. Certainly Sam and Anthony were on their own path with their things, and I was happy to remain in an apprenticeship role because I was still learning a lot from playing with them. That’s the way I looked at it. One recording that sticks out in your discography is the 1983 solo cello album, Life Cycle. Is that an instrument that you still incorporate in your current work?No, I had to let it go. When I started playing it in 1970, I was using it with Circle at times, and then I used it with Anthony Braxton and with Sam Rivers. So I used to travel with both the cello and the bass. I made Life Cycle after I just recovered from a life-threatening medical condition in 1982. I’d been planning to make that record before I got ill, and when I was in the hospital for a month, initially, there was a conference room where they allowed me to play the cello. And so the first thing I wanted to do once I recovered was to make that solo cello album, and that came at the end of that 10-year period, or a little bit more, actually, of using a cello in groups. But it did capture what I was able to do on the instrument at that point in time. When I started the first quintet in 1983 [with saxophonist Steve Coleman, trombonist Julian Priester, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and drummer Steve Ellington], I was still playing the cello, but then I just found it was so hard to keep my playing level up on the instrument. I didn’t have enough time to practice it once I started having my own band, having to do what was needed for that. I guess I played it for another few years at the beginning of the ’80s, but then around ’84-’85, I stopped playing it in bands and didn’t return to it, unfortunately. I love the instrument, it’s just the demand for the bass and the cello at the same time … I couldn’t keep it going. And all the other things — writing music and teaching, touring — it was just too much.You’ve recorded with a diverse list of artists, from Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem and Spanish flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela to bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements to groups like Gateway, Steve Coleman and Five Elements, and Crosscurrents Trio. How do you account for such eclecticism?I just love music and I have a broad range of things I’m interested in. So the music that I enjoy playing covers a lot of ground, and I’m just lucky enough to be able to do it. There’s been a lot of different things that have come up that I’ve done over the years. But really, I just try and pick the things that I think I can make a contribution to. That’s where I’m at at the moment. - Bill Milkowski
Featured photo by Dave Stapleton.