Arguably the most respected bassist in the world of jazz, timekeeper Dave Holland has been at the cutting edge of some of the great ensembles in the business ever since anchoring the bottom during Miles Davis’ shift to his groundbreaking electric fusion sound in the late ’60s. Though Holland’s first big splash may have come with a plugged-in Fender jazz bass, most of his work has centered around the impeccable swing and melodic artistry he shows off playing acoustic bass.
His resume includes stints with the free jazz supergroup Circle (which he co-founded with pianist Chick Corea, saxophonist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Atschul), the Gateway Trio (with fellow Davis alumnus Jack DeJohnette on drums and John Abercrombie on guitar) as well as Stan Getz, Thelonious Monk and Sam Rivers. Still, Holland is best known for the small groups he has led and his creative compositions that have pushed the envelope of acoustic jazz without simply rehashing the post-bop sounds of the past.
For his latest band project Prism, Holland has reunited with late ‘80 collaborator and guitarist Kevin Eubanks (perhaps best known for leading the Tonight Show band for a 15-year tenure that ended in 2010) alongside keyboard player Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland to return the bassist to a high-energy electric jazz sound for the first time since he played with Miles Davis. The quartet’s eponymous album Prism on Holland’s own Dare2 record label kicks off with the blistering opener “The Watcher” powered by Eubank’s heavily distorted guitar figure and Taborn’s pulsing Fender Rhodes piano before veering into the more subdued but still groove-oriented lope of “The Empty Chair” that hearkens back to the simmering heat heard on “Sivad” from the landmark Davis album Live Evil. The album also shows a softer side on the lilting ballads “The Color of Iris” and the stately album closing Taborn composition “Breathe.” Holland recently spoke with KTVU.com by phone from his home in upstate New York to discuss the new band’s working and recording process before the group plays the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium on Sunday, Oct. 6 (show is at 7 p.m. Tickets $25-$65)
I know the band made its live debut in June of last year at a jazz festival in Ottowa. How much of the material on the album had you developed with rehearsals? Or are the songs on the album things that came together as you spent more time playing together?
No, all the songs on the CD are songs we started off with right at the first rehearsal. We had several rehearsals in June to just get a feel for the band as well as learning the music and getting used to the sound of the group, figuring out how we were going to integrate each player into the music and so on.
And then we had a chance to play the music during the tour that we did following the Ottowa gig. We were out all through July last year. And when we returned back to the New York area, we had about a week free and went in the studio to record the album. It’s a process I like to use on pretty much every record I’ve ever done, to at least have some time playing the music and developing it on gigs before we get a chance to document it. That way we have a chance to get a little deeper into the music than just the first reading.
I was happy to see that the Prism album is coming out on vinyl, since that’s still how I prefer to get new music…
It’s actually the first album I’ve put out on my own label that will be on vinyl. All the previous releases have just been CDs. A lot of people have been asking me about vinyl versions of the recordings and I just thought this would be a nice one to start that process. I’m actually thinking about going back and maybe doing some pressings of a couple of other ones, especially the flamenco record I did a couple of years ago – the previous record to this one with Pepe Habichuela called Hands. I think that would be really great on vinyl.
When I got the pressing [of the Prism album] to listen to it and check it out, I was so impressed with the sound of vinyl again. I hadn’t played any vinyl for a while. I still have my deck and everything. I put it on and full and had so much depth to it, I enjoyed it. I’m really considering the idea of maybe at least re-releasing a couple of things on vinyl. Maybe a limited run, because it’s still not as in demand as CDs, but enough at least so people who are interested could get a copy.
It’s making a comeback. A lot of people are regretting the fact that they sold all their vinyl. I fortunately wasn’t one of them. I still have a nice collection of records. But there’s the convenience factor of CDs and the convenience factor of also downloading. I think that’s had a very positive impact on the music business in a lot of ways, increased access being one of the major things.
We were always a little bit hampered by the fact that there were so many stages between the release of a record and actually putting it in that hands of the person who wanted to hear it. You relied a lot on the buyers who were buying for the record stores, whether they were the bigger chain stores which have now mostly disappeared or the smaller record stores. You were still dependent on them deciding to stock it. And then if people couldn’t find it, they’d have to go through the process of special ordering it.
Now, for me, it’s wonderful. If I want to hear something, I just open up the computer and either buy it or check it out on Spotify or one of those music services. So I think the access to music now has definitely benefitted all of us.
Some of the rock bands that are putting out recordings on vinyl specifically gear the process to the format, where they’re using all tube amps and going all analog as far as recording. Do you still use more modern recording techniques as far as recording digitally?
We used digital recordings for this. We’re not going to tape at this point, at least not so far. But we use some tube equipment in the processing of it and really try to go for a warm analog sound with a lot of things. Often I like to use a studio in New York that has a fantastic collection of vintage mics and – I don’t want to get too technical – but there are certain mixing boards which are particularly warm and have that analog feel to them. So to me that’s an important part of the process.
And the mastering process too is very important to me. It’s something I’m always involved with. I always go to the mastering sessions. There are a lot of things you can do in that stage of the process which can make a big impact on the warmth of the sound. I mean, it’s a consideration, but the convenience of using Pro Tools and not having to run a tape machine right now is something I’m taking advantage of. It is something to consider though. I did a solo album some years ago that we really did try to use all vintage equipment on and I liked the results of it, but at this point I’m happy with what we’re getting. It’s working for me. But I’m always open to change though, so we’ll see what happens.
Has having your own label changed how you’re approaching your output as a band leader? Are you still going to work with labels you’ve had a long history with like ECM?
No, no. I had a very good relationship of recording with ECM; it was something like 32 or 33 years. I had a chance to document all the music I wanted to with them without any restrictions, so that was a great opportunity. But there were some issues about scheduling and when things could be released and things like that which were dependent on the record company to decide. And also the decisions on how the record would be made available and what kind of marketing process was used and so on. Those are all things that I’m very happy to have in my own hands.
I’ll never say never, but I don’t have any plans at this point to record for any other label as a leader certainly. I’ve done a few things as a sideman for other labels, but I just don’t see any point to it. There’s no reason for me to go with another label. There’s no advantage to me at all in sales or anything like that.
I’m sure the return must be better. Any artist who has gone on to releasing their own music has said they’re sort of cutting out the middle man by selling directly to their fan base…
Well, that’s an advantage of course. And the ownership of your masters, which in long-term thinking about your music, I’m glad that now my family will own some of the masters that I’ve produced. Which of course in the normal arrangement, all those are owned by the record company. And you don’t have control over necessarily what will happen to those masters too. They can get sold to another label, they can be stored somewhere and not put out anymore. For me, it’s just a much better situation all around.
And we’ve had some opportunity to license the recordings to major labels, so we get the advantage of the distribution that they have to offer, but still retain all the control of it. That’s the case with this record. It’s out on my label worldwide, but the distribution in the States is being handled by Red Eye Distribution. They do the distribution and manufacturing in the U.S., but Sony’s re-launch of the Okeh label is distributing it worldwide outside of the U.S. So to me, that’s the best of both worlds.