Admirers of the jazz bassist, bandleader, and composer Dave Holland have grown accustomed to being pleasantly surprised by this restless artist’s creative path, which has led from seminal proto-fusion forays with Miles Davis to heady avant-garde jazz with collaborators like Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, and Sam Rivers, and onward to a long string of successful projects under his own leadership. Still, even the most diligent Holland follower might have been surprised by an announcement that came in February: a new studio project featuring Evan Parker, among the most eminent figures in the mercurial scene commonly referred to as European free improvisation.
But Holland, too, had been present for the beginning of that musical movement during the 1960s, and in 1968 had played alongside Parker on one of the genre’s foundational documents: Karyobin, an album by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, founded by the percussionist John Stevens. Holland and Parker remained close ever since, and the bassist sat in recently with Parker’s trio at London’s Vortex Jazz Club. In January, the pair released a brief improvisation through Bandcamp as a benefit for that volunteer-run venue, and in March they played an evening of duets there to raise additional funds for a new curatorial initiative.
Further cementing the rekindled collaboration, on May 11 Holland will issue Uncharted Territories, a two-disc (or three-LP) studio recording of improvisations and compositions recorded with Parker, pianist Craig Taborn, and percussionist Ches Smith, on Dare2, the independent label Holland founded in 2005. (National Sawdust Log first reported details about the impending release in February, here.) Four tracks from the album are available already on Spotify and other streaming services: three open-form improvisations, as Holland prefers to call them, and a boldly cubist reimagining of “Q&A,” a Holland piece originally featured on his landmark album Conference of the Birds, issued by ECM in 1973. All of the tracks attest to the formidable chemistry these musicians developed in two busy days of studio work.
But there’s no need to take our word for it: Listen to “Q&A” right now, right here. Then dig into an extensive interview with Holland, conducted by telephone, in which he talks about his pathway into free improvisation, and what brought him back for another round.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Uncharted Territories is a beautiful album, and a genuinely unexpected one, as well. It brought back to mind your participation in one of the most famous and significant albums of British free improvisation, Karyobin by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, on which you played not just with Evan Parker, but also with Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey, and John Stevens. I wondered if I might start by asking you how you first came into contact with John Stevens and that scene?
DAVE HOLLAND: I was living in London from ’64 to ’68, and one of the main centers of activity for the young musicians was Ronnie Scott’s Old Place. A lot of stuff was going on there. And not far from there was this place called the Little Theatre Club, which was literally that: it was a small place, maybe 25 seats, and they would have evening performances of theater productions. And then after that was done, John Stevens and the other musicians would play there from something like 11:00 at night.
I don’t remember exactly what got me there… I know that Barry Guy, who was also involved in that, was a student along with me – he came in maybe two years behind me at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. So it could possibly have been Barry that told me about it. Kenny Wheeler also had started going there. It was one of the centers of improvised music, and I got very interested in it, because it was a very unique kind of approach to improvisation. As a young musician… well, I’m still that way anyway, but I was just interested in lots of approaches to improvisation. There were lots of different areas: the Chris McGregor Band was in London, the South African group, and they had a particular way they approached it, and there was John Surman’s music, and all kinds of different folks. And, of course, there’s the regular Ronnie Scott’s club, where I would play with some of the visiting American jazz musicians.
So there were lots of things going on, but this was an island of activity which I got interested in, and I thought, I want to try and see what I can learn from playing in this context. John was kind of the ringleader, and the guy that this was focused around; Trevor Watts was there, Derek Bailey, and Evan Parker. And so Evan and I, possibly that was where we met. We began a friendship at that point, and I used to go and visit him at his apartment and we’d play in the afternoon. He was one of the musicians in London that I was really connected to strongly in developing improvisation.
I left all that behind, of course, when I went to America, but with me came a record, a copy of Karyobin, that we had made just before I left. It was a record I always was proud to be a part of, and thought it really captured a moment in the development of that music in England. And from that point on, Evan and I remained good friends, and whenever I visited London I would usually check to see if he was around. We had a tradition of going to a pub in the Covent Garden area, which used to be the Anarchist meeting place – it’s called the Lamb & Flag, and we’d always go and have a pub lunch there, a pint of beer and a pub lunch, and catch up on whatever was going on in our lives. And that continued on and on, up to today. We did a few recordings together, we played together on a few occasions after I’d moved to America, and just stayed in touch.
I’d always had at the back of my mind that I’d like to revisit that at some point. I’ve been visiting London more recently, just as part of a sort of thing that I think is happening in this period of my life, of just reconnecting with some things there. I’d been to see Evan play a few times, and I was always fascinated in his development, because he created such a unique language, I would say, for himself, and I was always interested to see where he would go with it, where it would develop. In recent years, he’s put himself into lots of different situations with different contexts, and I think I’ve heard all kinds of things added to the language that he’s been playing. So I went to see him play a few times about a year and a half ago, and then I sat in with him at the Vortex Jazz Club in London. And before I did that, I’d talked to him about doing a duo record.
Now, along with that, I’ve been wanting to do something else with Craig Taborn, and I’ve also wanted to do something with Ches Smith. So it was a kind of a convergence of energy that I was feeling in the music that I was being drawn to. I’d been going to see Ches play in a few situations, and we’d never played, but I thought, that’s somebody I would like to make some music with. With Craig, of course, we did some things in the past, and I was thinking at the back of my mind: I’d like to do something with more open-form improvisation with Craig. So all these thoughts kind of came together about a year ago, and we scheduled this recording for May of last year.
It’s an extraordinary group of people and it works beautifully well, as you intuited. Looking back to Karyobin for just a moment, it seems now like a key document that captures a transition from the jazz tradition as it had been known into something new and different. After that recording, you and Kenny Wheeler pursued very different directions from Parker, Bailey, and Stevens. Was there ever a moment when you thought completely free music was a territory in which you might linger for a while?
Yeah, it was—and I did, in fact, because after playing with Miles for a couple of years, Chick Corea and I had started working in a trio with Barry Altschul. We recorded this record, The Song of Singing. And part of what I was still feeling in my creative work development was to pursue some area of music that would incorporate some of the language that we were developing in that. That’s what came through in that record Song of Singing, and the Circle album, the recordings we did with Anthony Braxton and Chick and Barry. I think you can see a connection there to that. And then of course, subsequently in the ’70s I worked with Braxton’s band and with Sam Rivers’s band in open-form improvisation: two very different ways of approaching it, but still within those two groups, I felt like I was connecting into that train of thought.
Also during the ’70s, I went back to London and recorded with Derek Bailey, the [Improvisations for] Cello and Guitar album for ECM. We did another record with John Stevens during the ’70s. And there was another record… the Company records that Derek Bailey was organizing, I did one of those with George Lewis on trombone. So, you know, there’s been a train of thought. Now, both Kenny and I of course had very strong roots in the tradition of the music. And I have to say, John Stevens and Evan Parker were very much propelled into the music through the music that they listened to of Coltrane and Dolphy and Cecil Taylor, the music that was happening during the late ’50s and into the early ’60s, when we were coming into music.
I think Kenny and I still felt we needed to fulfill some of the musical ideas that were a continuation or an extension of the tradition, so we were writing music that utilized that part of the language. And I’ve always loved playing in closed-form music, as well: songs and tunes, and playing Kenny’s music. I think we had a foot in both worlds, in a way. And then when I started my own band in the ’80s, there were some open-form sections in the music. Jumpin’ In had some areas where we were exploring, maybe not in the same way that we did with John in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, but that was still a part of the language. I don’t feel it’s ever been completely taken out of my approach to music.
Conference of the Birds is a perfect example, because there’s so much freedom in that session, and such striking writing, as well. “Q&A” dates back to that session.
Yes, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to have that on this album. I wanted to kind of create a connection to that period of the music, but I wanted to revisit it and look at it from the perspective of this time. I thought that would make a nice kind of link, a reference, you know?
Absolutely. Talking about the links that Evan, Derek, and John had to the jazz tradition, to working bands and society ensembles, I’m reminded that over the years some observers have suggested what they were up to was an attempt to extend what they appreciated about American jazz, and free jazz especially, but then to cut the ties to the American vernacular and do something of its place and time. Was that something that was in the air back then?
I heard that spoken about by some musicians. But on the other hand, they also spoke about the inspiration that initiated their interest in improvisation – that they got the inspiration from African American music, and how important that was to them. I think they wanted to craft a language that was maybe not completely seeded in that tradition, but had the spirit of it, I would say, and also some connections to it. I mean, there’s times when I listen to Evan where I do hear his Coltrane influence coming through, even though it may not be as obvious as with some other players you might listen to, so that was a connection. I mean, when I first heard Derek Bailey I was 17; I was on tour with Johnny Ray, the singer, who was a crooner from America, and I was doing a tour with him in a big band. We stayed at a hotel in the north of England and in the lounge at the hotel – and I only found this out many years later, in talking to Derek – was Derek Bailey playing with Gavin Bryars on bass and Tony Oxley on drums. And they were playing Bill Evans compositions.
I hadn’t put it together, because I didn’t know Derek at that time. But I was talking to somebody, maybe Tony Oxley, and he said, “Oh yeah, you know, we used to play up in this thing.” And I said, damn, I remember being there.
What an amazing coincidence. There’s a very scrappy old rehearsal recording of the three of them doing “Miles Mode” that Derek eventually put out on Incus, and it’s mind blowing. The personal language Derek eventually developed on guitar comes as an utter shock, initially. But at times, especially later in his career, he might casually toss off a conventional jazz lick within the context of one of his improvisations; all of a sudden he snaps into melody and harmony, and it’s like, that’s the weird moment.
He was an extraordinary musician. I think he had a big impact on the people that played with him; I know he did with me. It did connect up with Ligeti and Penderecki and Webern, the serial composers and the textural things that were happening. These are all things that we were all checking out at the same time as we were checking out the older jazz music that was happening, the improvised music. We were checking out musical language in general: from different cultures, and Evan had a period where he was listening a lot to natural sounds, like whale singing, and all kinds of things. We were doing investigations into sound, you might say.
In the fullness of time, Barry Guy to some extent and Gavin Bryars wholeheartedly committed themselves to pursuing formal composition.
Exactly. It was a very interesting time. It was a time of discovery, of new ideas coming up, and a broad spectrum of things happening.
I have to ask, not wholly for selfish reasons, whether your performance with Evan at the Vortex in March was recorded for posterity, if the rest of the world is going to get to hear that, or if that was a special one-off.
No, that was a one-off, sorry.
Well, in a sense that makes it more special. What a lovely thing for the people who attend shows at the Vortex and support that place. I’ve only been there one time, but it was so special. I sat close enough to the stage that I was in danger of Louis Moholo breaking my nose with a flying drumstick.
Well, listen, I tell you, it is a special club. It gives a platform for music which wouldn’t necessarily be heard in other more traditional venues. That thing that Evan and I did started a fund, which we’re now utilizing to put on and support events there. This fund that we have is earmarked for that; we’re kind of curating the use of the funds, and we’re going to be supporting a wide variety of events at the club as a result of that fundraising event. We’re going to be doing some interesting programming relating to that.
Have you and Evan have discussed taking the Uncharted Territories project on the road?
Well, we’ve had a couple of offers already, and the record hasn’t come out yet. Their interest was sparked by the group, and the combination of people. So it’s just a matter of logistics. If we can find enough work that we could put together a small tour, and if everybody would be available for it, I’m down for it. I would love to do it, and so would everybody else – they’ve voiced their interest in it. So although nothing’s been organized yet, my feeling is that once the record’s out, something will come together in the next year or so.
We’ve talked extensively now about your bond with Evan. Could you describe the qualities that Taborn and Smith bring into the mix?
Both of them, as I think I mentioned in the liner notes, they’re masters of this form: of creating music spontaneously with other musicians, and getting a sense of how to really create a pacing and a development in open-form improvisation. They have a great sense of form and moment. And great listeners, which of course is essential in this situation: in order to have it work, you have to be totally connected psychically, intuitively, musically, and get a sense of where the music’s going and what the potentials are of any given moment. And these two are masters at that.
Craig, first of all, as a pianist is a virtuoso on the piano. He’s got a prodigious technique, extraordinary sensitivity, touch, and has an incredible imagination. But also, he crosses through genres; something I’ve admired in his playing is that he’s got an encyclopedic understanding of the music, and brings that to the table. And although we’re not playing conventional chord changes, all of that is informing what he does, so that gives us a chance to draw on not only the linear aspect of the music, but the vertical harmonic aspect of the music, and develop that.
Ches is similar, too: he’s come up through several streams of music, and brings the understanding of those to the table. He has the jazz tradition in his playing, groove, different feels. He’s studied the art of percussion, not just in jazz but in many other cultural aspects, and also western classical music. So he brings a knowledge of having performed in all kinds of situations. And again, as I said earlier, he has a sense of where the music’s going, when it’s supposed to end.
That’s an important thing to know, actually.
That’s one of the things in open-forum improvisation: you can keep this going and developing it and developing it, but how do you end? You know, this sensing when the moment is for the music to wind down and come to a conclusion – and he has a great sense of that. And I had a lot of fun playing with him. We hadn’t played a note together before we started recording. We didn’t rehearse, we didn’t do anything. The first take was the first time we played. But I’d listened enough to him to kind of get a sense of what it could be, and it was everything I hoped for. It was a great, great experience to be in the studio with these three musicians.
My last question is not about the music, but about the business side of your venture. You’ve advanced this project on Spotify and the other streaming services. Your Dare2 catalog is present and accounted for in all those places. And it’s been a big, big deal in recent months that Manfred Eicher finally relented and made the entire ECM catalog available for streaming. Now, I’m not going to try to paint a rosy picture of Spotify economics, by any means…
No, there are some issues.
But, but as a result, I’ve watched very knowledgeable people suddenly getting to know your back catalog on ECM – the great quintet records the later quartet with Kevin Eubanks, and so on – and it’s been very gratifying to see people discovering music that for one reason or another they hadn’t had ready access to. Is that the incentive for you to make your recordings available there: simply in order to help people discover it?
Absolutely. I think what we’re trying to do is encourage listeners to come and visit the music, and to listen to it. And, you know, the economics aside… of course, that is an issue because the record industry has been impacted a lot by streaming music. Record sales have been affected by it. But at the same time, I think for a lot of us, we do a lot of performing, and so we want people to know about the music. We want people to come to the concerts and support them, and support the tours and the projects that we’re doing. And if they have access to hear the music and hopefully get involved in it, then that can only result in good things in that respect, you know?
The thing that I always try to say, though, is that we do need people to buy records on CDs, or buy the downloads. It’s an expensive thing to make a record. It’s an expensive thing to produce, and all the post-production things are very expensive. Mixing, mastering, manufacturing: all of this costs money. And if we don’t have income coming in, it’s going to be very hard to support new projects. So I do ask people to please, you know, go out.
I still buy recordings… I try to support the music. I pay to go to clubs, even though people would let me come in. I think it’s important we support the music financially, and so I do ask people to do that. But I do think there’s an important place for these streaming services, to give people access to music they maybe haven’t heard before. I remember years ago being very frustrated, when I had a first had a working band making a record, and people saying, “I can’t find the record in the record stores.” So this is one of the great things, I think, about the way the Internet has impacted people’s access to music.
Dave Holland performs with Zakir Hussein and Crosscurrents at the Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, on May 4 and 5 at 8pm; jazz.org. Uncharted Territories is out May 11; pre-order here.