If you see NEC Artist in Residence Dave Holland in performance these days he will most likely be found either in duet with pianist Kenny Barron or amidst his newly assembled quartet Prism. These are particularly exciting projects, as the bassist and Barron have only collaborated a handful of times in the past, while Prism is a true all-star assemblage completed by guitarist Kevin Eubanks, pianist and keyboard player Craig Taborn, and drummer Eric Harland. They do not, however, signify that Holland has abandoned the powerful quintet, sextet, and big band that have made him jazz’s most prolific and successful bandleader of the 21st century. “I haven’t abandoned anything,” Holland insists. “I just prioritize, and my priorities now are Prism and the duo with Kenny.
“Any new project comes out of relationships, old and new,” he continues. “And there is also just that creative urge to explore new territory. Prism has become more of a collective effort, because I saw that the different writing style of each musician would broaden the band’s scope.”
Like all of Holland’s previous ensembles, Prism reflects his fascination with rhythms removed from the basic 4/4 swing of the jazz tradition. “I formed my first band in 1980 after doing a lot of open-form playing with Sam Rivers,” he explains, “and began by writing a lot of open-form music. But after talking to the new band, I realized that formal elements could take you in a direction you would never get to otherwise; and complex rhythms are one direction I pursued. I find that students are increasingly prepared to meet these rhythmic challenges, because they are now part of the language, in pop bands as well as jazz bands.”
Holland the bandleader has also done away with predictable solo routines. Some of his compositions are intended to feature specific musicians, while the solo order in others varies from performance to performance. “I do the same thing when I teach my NEC ensembles—finding the music that is appropriate for each student. That means doing it on the fly over the course of three rehearsals during each of my residencies.”
As a teenage musician from Wolverhampton, England, Holland did not have the resources at hand that students find today. “Jazz was viewed as a second-class music at the Guildhall School, where I studied; it was felt that playing jazz was detrimental to your development. Now, however, Guildhall has its own jazz program.” Fortunately, Holland chose to learn by doing. “1964 to 1968 were amazing years for me,” he says. “I went from being a self-taught guitarist who did not play bass at all to playing Greek music in a restaurant to playing Dixieland gigs to playing every style of jazz. I would literally play with Evan Parker one night and Coleman Hawkins the next.”
The experience clarified Holland’s views on teaching and learning, which dovetail perfectly with the NEC approach. “The process you use to learn impacts the end result, and being in a class where everyone works on the same thing is not the most effective approach. I had no choice but to put my own course of learning together, at my own pace. That’s one of the things that I like about NEC: the focus on the individual, the space people are given for shaping their own curriculum. I don’t find the same focus on developing individuality in all schools. Some want to put you in a mold, and that affects the way you create.”
As Artist-in-Residence since 2005, Holland spends one week each semester holding masterclasses, preparing two ensembles to perform his compositions, and spending time with bass players. “I urge all of the students I work with to take advantage of the Classical and Contemporary Improvisation programs at NEC as well as the Jazz program,” he notes. “Each is really strong, and each has a lot to offer.”
Holland’s approach to study is echoed in his advice on how to approach life as a working musician. “I tell students to use these years at NEC to collect information and to network with other young players, and I also encourage experience in as many different fields as possible. My goal from the outset was to be prepared to do any gig that was offered when the phone rang. In my early days, that meant things like recording commercial jingles and doing a tour with Roy Orbison. You have to ask yourself how you can make any music you’re working with as good as it can be.”