Monday, February 5, 2007

Soul Merchant Interviews Dave Holland

Your typical Missy Elliot listener

In advance of Dave Holland's appearance in Chapel Hill this Thursday, I interviewed him two weeks ago for a feature that ran in last Thursday's edition of recess. Below is the transcript for the whole interview. Holland's really a very nice guy--kind of the opposite of McCoy Tyner, though, very earnest and open, charming but not gregariously full of jokes. Alas, I did not discover until after I'd done the interview that he's from basically the same place as Robert Plant. I'd really love to hear his opinion on Zeppelin. I'd also really like to hear his electric playing, by the way; it's there on Bitches Brew, but there's so much going on ...

Some guys from Miles' electric bands, like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, have continued to experiment with electronics, but you and Wayne Shorter, as well as Keith Jarrett, have both gone acoustic while keeping many of the innovations developed during your time in Miles' bands. Can you talk about why you prefer the acoustic format?
You know, I don't really weigh one against the other, I don't see them as two competing situations--it's a matter of what setting you feel is most appropriate for the kind of music you want to play. One of the reasons I left Miles was because I wanted concentrate more on the acoustic bass and that had been put in the background the last six months I was in his band. I've really focused on the acoustic bass since then. The acoustic--it's a very sensual instrument, it vibrates in your hand. It's a direct sonority and you feel it in your hand.

Columbia is releasing every note Miles every recorded for them. Have you gone back and listened to those box sets for the records you were on [The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions]? How do you feel about it now?
It was a long time ago, and you really have a very different perspective, of course. Something that strikes me is how contemporary it sounds now. When I received the Isle of Wight Festival DVD [Miles Electric--A Different Kind of Blue], I felt like it could have been recorded yesterday. [laughing] The way we looked wasn't contemporary. Our fashion statement was definitely the sixties. As to the reissues, they help to give some insight into the process in the studio, but there's reasons why some things didn't make in to the records [chuckling].

You led bands from the early 1970s on, but really seem to have broken through around the turn of the century. What made the difference?
I finally started a working band in about 1983; I was about 36 I think [DG: Yep]. Up to that point I'd really been concentrating on learning about the music, learning the instrument and really looking to see what were the things that were most important to me as a musician. I really saw myself as an apprentice in the music up to that point. As a musician you look at your evolution and I thought I was ready [to start my own band]. There were some ideas I wanted to play that I didn't think I could play with everyone else. The other thing about it was that all the things I grew up admiring were bands--people who kept a band together and had a continuity and allowed the music to evolve: Duke Ellington, Miles, Coltrane, the projects that were put together and had some continuity to them. I always wanted to belong to a band and did. There were at any period in my life people who were my main ongoing connections.

My dad wanted me to ask about how you ended up playing with violinist John Hartford.
I've played with a lot of people in my life [chuckles]. I toured with Roy Orbison in England, and I've done a lot of things as a working musician. Anyway, in the 1970s I moved to upstate New York and met a record producer named John Simon. One day I was driving through doing some errands and he was walking with John Hartford. He said, 'You're just the person I was looking for! We need an acoustic bass player for a record we're making!' It began an involvement on a number of records with John Hartford and some of his friends.

Was it tough to fit in with that style?
I wouldn't pass if off as easy to do or easy to sit in on, but as a bass player I learned to work with different situations and figure out what a specific situation demands of me as a bass player. When I work with people, sometimes there are very different things--when I worked with Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, for example. You just try to find something that you find appropriate.

How did you put together the band you have now? Is there a particular experience with one of those guys that sticks out to you?
The people that I end up working with in my groups are people who I meet and have some sort of musical experience with, and at some point I'll consider, 'Maybe we can do a project.' This band ... Have you had any information on this gig? You know it's a sextet and not the quintet?

[Sheepishly] Actually, not that much ... I knew that, but that's about it ...
Oh, well this is a relatively new project. It's Alex Sipiagin--that's S-I-P-I-A-G-I-N--on trumpet, Antonio Hart on soprano sax, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Eric Harland on drums, and Robin Eubanks on trombone. This is a band that came together last year. It's not going to replace the quintet as my full-time working group, but the quintet's been around for nearly 10 years and I like doing different things.

The quintet's music, most of which you compose, is complicated, polyphonic music but with freedom and groove. How did you come to that style?
I would say on one level certainly there's some complexity in it for the musicians. There are a lot of levels. I think there's this misconception about jazz that you have to understand the theory, but like any other music, it speaks to the heart. Shakespeare is like that--you can laugh at the bawdy jokes, but beneath that there's plot, and depth. I think you can combine the two so that there's something for everyone. A book that I read 20 years ago probably will speak to me differently today.

How did you develop that style, though?

It's not a finished project. As a musician, you pick the things that appeal to you as a listener and things that express what you feel. It's influenced by my experiences, people I've worked with, people I've studied. I was lucky enough to be with Miles when I was 21 and being able to watch the process he used was very valuable.

Your quintet is made up of 4 strong voices, several of whom are leaders in their own rite. Is it hard to control egos or even just conflicting pure musical conceptions in that setting?
I don't feel like I have to be the only one responsible for that. We all want to be involved in the project. On a practical level--scheduling, you have to plan everything well ahead, six months to a year ahead. Musically in the quintet, we've found each other to be very sympathetic. There's a lot of differences in the quintet, but they turn out to be very complementary. That diversity in the group really makes it better. It's not just five people who are thinking identically.

How much of your stuff is really arranged, and how much develops in rehearsal or on the bandstand?
From one extreme, you'd say with the big band you have quite a lot of written material in order to coordinate. It changes. The music we bring in the combos, we start practicing and change happens. Sometimes something will happen when we play it on a gig, too, and it becomes part of the song.

The sextet you're bringing has Mulgrew Miller in it, of course, but a lot of the settings you've played in over the years don't have pianos or keyboards. I know Bill Frisell has said he has a hard time playing with keys; is that the case with you too?
Some of my best friends are piano players [laughing]! The reason that I have a piano in this group is because 0f Mulgrew Miller. Most of the time it has to do with the musician himself, not the instrument he plays. The piano in the hands of a great player is a wonderful tool. In the quintet I've been having more open, sparser settings that create a more minimalist setting for the chords. If you listen to Bud Powell and you listen to Thelonius Monk you have two very
different approaches and that's what makes the music great.

You had a long relationship with ECM, but after extended play you moved to your own label, Dare2. What was your frustration with the record industry, and how has the Dare2 experience been?
First of all, the relationship with ECM was very positive for me. This was not a rejection of ECM but a moving on for me. It allows me to retain ownership of recorded material, which, as you know, in a traditional relationship the label controls the music. And then of course there's the issue of having more control over how the music is distributed and when. Those are sort of the main motivations. The record company is something I've been wanting to do for some time and finally three years ago we were in a position to do that and we had a strong interest with Verve France to distribute the label, which gave us a good way to distribute.

What's on your schedule soon besides the sextet gigs?
This year I'm going a tour with Anouar and in March I'm going to Spain to work with some flamenco musicians for a few concerts. I've also got some duets with [quintet marimbist] Steve Nelson. This year we're also touring with the quintet--we had the new record that came out [Critical Mass, released in August].

I talked to McCoy Tyner a few months back, and he said he doesn't like to listen to music, because he's trying to concentrate on his own thing. Do you listen to a lot of music, or are you more like McCoy?
I do listen, and there;s times when I'm listening and times when I'm not. I can relate to what McCoy's saying because sometimes you want to concentrate on what you're doing.

So what are you listening to recently?
I have a very broad taste in music and that's reflected in my collection...

Well, okay. Do you have an iPod?

What's on your it?
I've got thousands of songs on my iPod so it really depends what I'm feeling like at the time...

But what's on your most played list recently?
I've been listening to Gonzalo Rubalcaba's album Paseo and I've got some contemporary music--hip-hop, Prince, Missy Elliott. And then classical--so I go back and forth.

Prince: Relic

"I hear the distant echo of an electronic drum set... "

In the middle of a somewhat bizarre Super Bowl (such sloppiness! So many turnovers!), viewers were treated to a fully bizarre sight in the form of that '80s holdover, the formerly nameless one, the purple one himself, Prince. Kelefa, of course, already beat me to this ...

For my age group, the decade in which we were born is pretty well summed up by leg warmers, Cyndi Lauper, Jacko and Prince. For whatever reason, some peiple still like leg warmers (and Cyndi Lauper, for that matter). Michael Jackson is of course a full-out laughinstock for ... well, we all know why; but his best music remains iconic and enjoyed. You can't help but smile when that opening chords of "ABC" start clanging out. Your feet move automatically to that snaky, tricky bassline on "Billie Jean." And I saw a whole crowd of people dancing to "Thriller"--zombie moves and all--last night, so that's obvi got some staying power.

But Prince is another matter. With the exception of the inimitable Teague Allston, my roommate last year and the owner of a copy of Purple Rain, no one I know is into Prince; it seems he just hasn't transferred well over the years, and when I read the likes of Greg Tate and Miles Davis talking about his genius and influence at one time, I'm incredulous. That's all well and good, but not really the point of this post, or the reason why I say that Prince is a relic.

On that absurd symbol-shaped stage tonight, Prince played a Telecaster (a nice one!), some kinda Stratocaster (above) and naturally that absurd guitar shaped like The Symbol, an axe that looks really uncomfortable to play for my tastes. Virginia Heffernan, in a Times blog, wrote, "Also, why is he EVER left out when people talk about African-Americans who play electric guitar? Never again." Well, yes, that's a good point. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he plays corny-ass eighties riffs ... whoops, sorry. The point is that Prince might be the last great guitar-playing star. There are huge guitarists today (most of whom I dislike)--Mark Tremonti of Creed, or Tom Morello of RATM and Audioslave, and so on and so forth--but they have a defined role inside the band. Less offensively, we see the same thing with Johnny Greenwood in Radiohead. The result is the same: the (technically) best players in rock music don't front their own bands.

But it seems to me that Prince fits in a much older tradition, and he helped to reinforce that by playing a song that Hendrix made famous ("All Along the Watchtower"). This a sort of half-baked idea, dreamt up on my way back from the Chronicle office, so I may be overlooking someone obvious, but Prince's biggest disconnect may be that he belongs to the older (whiter?) musical tradition of Hendrix, John Fogerty (yeah, he covered him too, but I hate goddamn "Proud Mary"), Eric Clapton, Neil Young and many other lesser or more obscure talents--accomplished guitarists who are also idols because they're singers.

There are older bands that weren't fronted by singer-lead guitarists: Jefferson Airplace, the Dead (for the most part), Steely Dan kind of, The Byrds in the Clarence White era. But I'm inclined to believe that the newer trend has to date to something like that other '80s abomination, Van Halen--Eddie's name was on the band, but he wasn't the singer, of course.

I don't know really who we have to blame for this--maybe it's EVH--but I would like to have a few words with him or her. 'Cause although I may not get Prince (But I must say, "Purple Rain" was fantastic!), I can dig the fact that he plays a Tele and can respect his hilariously dated hammer-ons and tapping. And I can respect the fact that he is a man of many talents. Eat that, Brandon Flowers.

(This post could really have used a copy-editor; if you got this far, you get my sincerest apologies.)