Bassist Dave Holland is riding high in the jazz world these days, leading a band and making recordings that for several years have made him and his various projects poll winners in just about every qualifying poll category.
Artist of the Year, Bassist of the Year, Acoustic Band of the Year and Recording of the Year all have gone Holland's way in DownBeat magazine's prestigious International Critics Poll, as well as many other listings.
The key to these many accolades is Holland's steady working band, a quintet that has been together for six years, though the leader and all of his sidemen often can be found working in other contexts or leading other groups as circumstances and opportunities permit.
The Dave Holland Quintet could be considered a mathematician's quandary because, in its case, the whole is greater than the sum of its formidable parts.
The band co-features saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, drummer Billy Kilson and longtime Holland musical associate Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba.
"I very much believe in the idea of having a band where everybody has a chance to really speak with their own voice in it. The challenge is to create a cohesive setting for that to happen. Something that gives focus and structure without inhibiting the freedom that you want to give all the players to explore their own particular ideas," said Holland, who came to jazz visibility as a Miles Davis sideman from 1968 to 1970.
The quintet, Holland said, has "grown in scope and range in terms of how we have developed our musical language as a band. Six years plus of playing together has created an intuitive and instinctive connection between the players, something where you can really breathe together and you can really get a sense of where the music might go and what a person might be doing. It heightens the degree of communication that happens the longer you play together. I can see musically how it has moved along. We've built on the ideas we started with in the first music the band played in 1997."
The joy of having a consistent band, he said, "is to have a situation which has some continuity to it, which has a group of musicians who are developing their playing together and developing music along lines that are very personal and very much coming out of the individual styles that are existing in the band.
"It has been a great opportunity to have that luxury of continuous projects that you can keep adding to. Of course, the thing about playing on a regular basis together is that you get a chance at every performance to develop the music and to move it and to explore it in new ways. It gives you a chance to really try things and give full rein to the imagination," Holland noted.
"The ideal for me is to have a group of individuals who accept direction, and take responsibility when they are soloing, yet are very supportive of each other. Having those dynamics at work creates the best opportunities. Everybody then is liberated by that and feels free to create; free to make mistakes and free to take chances. For me, it's a situation where you feel confident in their abilities and their strengths. It's a musical adventure," he said.
This quintet also is the core of a 13-piece big band that Holland formed in 2000 with the addition of three more saxophones, two more trombones and three trumpets. Its music has been well-received. Its debut recording, "What Goes Around," was released by ECM last fall.
"A larger group enables you to have a bigger palette of colors and possibilities that you can use in your composing," Holland said. "The composer side of me saw it as the next significant challenge as a writer -- to transpose the music from the small group setting into a larger context and elaborate more compositionally on the ideas in the pieces. That's been the challenge of it that I've enjoyed.
"Having a larger community of musicians to work with and to expand on and to have a greater range of personalities for whom to write has been great. It feels really good to be expanding the communal aspect of the music in this way. The small group has a lot more flexibility. This is just the nature of the project. I'm trying to develop the same spontaneity and flexibility in the big band that we have in the small band. I think Duke (Ellington) achieved it in the way he created settings for the musicians. I think (Charles) Mingus also did. It is part of the picture. I'm concerned with providing an improvisational setting for players, not just a thing that will elaborate on my compositional work," he said.
The core within the core of these bands remains the creative and fluid musicality of Holland's bass playing.
This alumnus of the Davis, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock bands is taking part this week in Toronto's 50th anniversary celebration of the historic May 15, 1953, Massey Hall concert by a band billed as "The Quintet." It was a bebop summit with saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach.
Thursday night's modern quintet all-star concert at Massey Hall teams Holland with pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Roy Haynes, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
"All of the musicians are great listeners and players and they all respond to each other. It should be a very nice exchange of music that night," Holland said. "I'm sure looking forward to it a lot. We've got a couple of days in Toronto with some rehearsal time, so it is a nice project to get involved in."