It's a satisfying, heartwarming even, conclusion to the story, especially as it's the 30th anniversary of Holland's departure to New York. But what isn't so well known is that when Davis made Holland the offer he couldn't refuse, he didn't actually speak to him at all. It wasn't until the conclusion of their first gig together that the young bassist from Wolverhampton was introduced to the man who had just changed his life. "Ronnie's new club had been open for about a year and I had just got my first gig there with Pat Smythe, backing singer Elaine Delmar," remembers Holland. "Going on stage for the last set, Miles's old drummer Philly Joe Jones, who was living in London at the time, came up to me and said, "Dave, Miles wants you to join his band." I said "Come on?" and he said, "No, it's for real, he wants to talk to you." By the end of the set, Miles had gone, but he'd left the club a message for me to call his hotel. When I phoned, I was told he'd checked out. Philly Joe said, "Just wait a while, he'll make a move. He doesn't say these things lightly." Two weeks later, Miles's manager Jack Whitamore called and said "Can you be in New York in two weeks?"
"I was set to do a week at Ronnie's with Joe Henderson and I played the first night and then went to New York," Holland continues. "I gave all my records to the drummer John Marshall, who I shared a flat with, left my car parked in the street outside and just packed a bag, and didn't come back for a year. Jack Dejohnette met me at the airport and said I could stay at his house, and that evening I went to Herbie Hancock's and rehearsed a few tunes, including "Nefertiti". The next night, I went on stage at the Count Basie club. None of the musicians knew me, there was no talk about tunes, we just played. After the gig, I met Miles, but only very briefly. We did get to be quite close afterwards and he was very nice to me and would cook me meals. I'd only been out of England once, on a two-day trip to Berlin, and I just couldn't believe it. Some friends of mine in New York went to the club to see Miles, and they saw me!"
Holland left Miles in 1970 to play in the trio of pianist Chick Corea (who had replaced Herbie Hancock in the Davis quintet before leaving himself), and with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton they became the quartet Circle. Holland's association with ECM Records dates from this time, and in 1972 he recorded his first album as leader, the Dave Holland Quartet's, Conference of the Birds, a stunningly original and deeply meditative series of compositions that still sounds completely contemporary. It's one of the best jazz albums ever, and one of the very best to use free improvisation and open compositional structures. "We did it in four hours," Holland says. "I remember because it was a six- hour studio booking. The music had both a melodic aspect and a rhythmic aspect, and that's what communicates to me; something which has a very strong quality emotionally but also a strong rhythm, and which varies structure and bar-length and uses time-signatures other than just 4/4 or 3/4. In some ways, I see that the music has a continuity in my life, and there's always been both a simple and a complex side."
The quintet Holland brings to Ronnie's next week is a new band (the same as on the new album, Points of View), but the character of the music is a continuation of the series of quintet compositions that began with the superb album Jumpin' In of 1983, and has continued through several wonderful recordings for ECM ever since. Though Holland's up-tempo compositions are always intricately structured and never mere blowing vehicles (though there will be some heroic blowing from the band at Ronnie's), his slower, more magisterial, themes (one hesitates to call them ballads) are quite without compare. Like the title track of Conference of the Birds, they reveal him as one of the most sensitive of all jazz composers. He's also one of the greatest bassists there is, although he progressed to the instrument from an interesting, and very British, route, beginning on ukelele with the encouragement of an uncle who idolised George Formby.
"Since the mid-1980s, I've been trying to play more closed-form music, but it's music written for the people playing it and there's an interaction and a purpose," Holland says. "With each different group, I'm trying to find a new sound, because everybody has their own sound on their instrument." Holland's own sound on the acoustic bass is rich and full and his playing is regarded as being just about as expressive as the instrument can get. At Ronnie's the bass solos will command unusual quiet, and as Holland plays, one might even imagine the shade of a shortish, very dark black man wearing the most fashionable of clothes, standing by the bar smoking a cigarette and checking him out. He wonders if he should say something, and then thinks better of it.
The Dave Holland Quintet plays Ronnie Scott's, London W1, from Monday to Friday. 'Points of View' is available on ECM Records.Reuse content