Jazz Bass Journey

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Diary of the Dave Holland Residency 2011 at the UM Frost School of Music by Jazz Student Gary Thomas

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Bassist and composer Dave Holland conducted a week-long residency with Frost jazz students in September 2011.

For a week each fall, jazz students at the Frost School of music are coached by bassist-composer Dave Holland during his annual week-long residency in Miami.  First year grad student Gary Thomas kept a daily journal, and transcribed his impressions and observations. The 2011 residency concluded with the Frost Jazz Septet performing a concert featuring Dave Holland compositions in UM Gusman Concert Hall.

By Gary Thomas

Monday 9/19/11:
I first met Dave Holland just before his 2:00 p.m. opening master-class. Dave is exceptionally knowledgeable from a musical standpoint, yet also personable and humble. Before the master-class, he took the time to get acquainted with many of us individually, and graciously thanked everyone for the opportunity to play and talk about music.

He started out discussing his humble beginnings in England during the 1950s and 60s. He talked about his family, his introduction to music, his guitar and electric bass ventures at a youth club in his early teens, and his eventual decision, at age 17, to pursue music as a career. He recounted being interested in rock early on, and soon developing an interest in the acoustic bass after hearing the records of Ray Brown and Leroy Vinnegar. Dave honed his reading abilities at a dance band gig in Northern England, and then played in London at a Greek Restaurant, where he first had the chance to learn about odd-meters. It was at that time that he began studying classical string bass with James Merritt, who was the principal bassist in the Philharmonia Orchestra at the time. This eventually lead to Dave’s classical study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1965, at which time he also began playing extensively at the jazz club ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ as the house bassist for many touring headliners. It was there, in 1968, that Miles Davis observed his playing abilities and invited Dave to join his band in New York, which began his U.S. career.

Dave recounted his initial experiences with Miles, having originally been disillusioned by the more aggressive, less “polite” manner in which American musicians performed and played jazz, compared to that of musicians in the London area. However, Dave was also very insistent that this experience had an extremely important role in helping him develop more confidence in his technique and stylistic approach.

He also performed two amazing solo pieces at the end of the class. The first was “Homecoming,” an original composition. The second was his rendition of “Mr. P.C.,” a John Coltrane blues. It was very uplifting to hear Dave perform these two pieces. This wasn’t the first time I had heard them, as he recorded both of them on a solo album entitled Ones All.  This was a recording that I listened to extensively several years back, which served me as a great inspiration both then and now. Hearing the pieces performed live reminded me why I had decided to pursue music as a career in my high school days, just as Dave had decided in his younger years.

Later in the day, I worked with Dave more closely at a rehearsal with the Frost Septet in which we played five of his original compositions.  When I struggled initially with the time signatures in several of the tunes, Dave was quick to demonstrate bass lines and give me some very useful pointers for playing pieces in odd time signatures.  He was patient, direct, and open minded in his teaching. He was quick to share alternative mental approaches to the rhythms and harmonies, yet equally willing to allow each of us a great deal of artistic liberty. He wasn’t telling us how to play the music; instead he was helping us realize our potential for its performance.  I felt inspired to perform better after working with him in this rehearsal.

Tuesday 9/20/11:
Today, Dave gave a very interesting class on rhythm, which he feels has an equal level of importance to melody and harmony. He mostly discussed the ways in which musicians and composers alike can effectively superimpose rhythmic grouping based on odd numbered note values over standard 4/4 time signatures, which are more commonly used. In this way, it can add interest for the listener, as the music then sounds as if it’s being played in two different, but simultaneous, time signatures. I have had a fair amount of experience working on this at a rudimentary level, but Dave shared with us a whole new array of advancements.

Most musicians are familiar with using consecutive grouping of 3 notes over a basic 4/4 meter, but Dave was an expert at the use of 5 note groupings, which is a considerably more advanced, less common technique.

Even so, he soon had the students clapping the rhythms he was demonstrating, and eventually taught us how to use vocal syllables to master some of the more complicated rhythmic groupings. As a creative musician, I am always striving to find new ideas. After the class, I realized that the use of more advanced rhythms might very well be the next logical step I want to explore to achieve this.  He concluded by stressing the importance of ‘rhythmic resolution’, which he likened to the more familiar concept of harmonic resolution. Most of us are very familiar with the concept of adding tension to music through the use of more obscure harmonies, but Dave showed us how more unusual rhythms can also add tension and contrast in music.

I think many of us underestimate the importance of rhythm in our musical ventures.

Wednesday 9/21/11:
On Wednesday, Dave taught a bass master class, which was very exciting to me as I am primarily a bassist. In it he discussed many of the technical aspects of playing the instrument: balance, posture, and relaxation. He placed a great deal of importance on having equal weight distribution on both feet, to achieve the best balance and ultimately the best control of the instrument.  Although I consider my technical approach to be very traditional, this was one very basic concept that I have overlooked for many years now.

“Tension is the biggest enemy of fluidity,” he said. “Technique is simply the ability to play what you hear.” He went on to discuss the equally important mental aspects of playing the instrument: The importance of avoiding ‘auto-pilot’ while practicing or performing, staying ‘in the moment’, and creating relevance with what you practice so that it does not become a ‘routine’. 

He also talked a great deal about sound, and how it defines the way you play. He made it very clear that ‘forcing’ something to work technically on the instrument will create very little long-term progress, as the result will fail to reinforce relaxation, which is essential to performing well. He concluded by outlining the problems that many jazz musicians encounter when they have too many preconceived notions about exactly what the performance is supposed to sound like before they perform. I was especially intrigued at the concept of achieving technical advancement on the instrument through patience and relaxation. It has taken many years for me to learn this, but the best progress truly is achieved when one can alleviate unnecessary tension from the body and mind.

Later in the day, we had our dress rehearsal for the Friday concert.  Everything went well, and Dave agreed to perform with us on one of the tunes, which was especially exciting. Despite Dave’s impressive reputation as a musician, I didn’t feel the least bit intimidated performing next to him.  He was supportive in every possible way. 

Thursday 9/22/11:
Today, Dave discussed composition concepts extensively. Dave is in many ways an even better composer than bassist, which is impressive to say the least. He began by showing us several of his compositions and explaining how he came to write them. The first concept that he shared was that of finding alternate resolutions by substituting chords with equivalent modes. In this way, he said, one can add originality and interest to a composition. He was also adamant about reserving the option of changing time signatures in the middle of the song and using phrases that are not necessarily divisible by 2.  Dave plays music as if he is composing on the spot.  Many times he literally is, in the case of improvisation, but more importantly I was able to see how composing and playing music have become one in the same for Dave.  I feel that this is something that I too can achieve in time. 

Friday 9/23/11:
Today was especially interesting for me, because I had the opportunity to drive Dave from the place where he was staying while in Miami to the University for his master-class and I got to know another side of him.  He has a daughter and several grandchildren, to which he is very dedicated.  Although he performs extensively in New York City, Dave lives approximately an hour and a half north of the city, in an area that is a little more in touch with nature.

During the master class, I had the opportunity to perform one of my solo bass pieces, which was quite thrilling given the fact that Dave Holland essentially invented the concept of unaccompanied solo Acoustic Bass. I was glad to have the opportunity to perform for Dave and everyone else in such a direct manner, but I was also slightly intimidated at this time. This was partially due to the fact that I consider myself somewhat of a novice at composing and performing unaccompanied solo acoustic bass material. I only had one composition prepared in this style, so the choice was simple. Although Dave seemed to like the piece, the performance, and the approach, I didn’t feel that it was necessarily one of my best performances. What was achieved from this was not the satisfaction of having played great; instead it was the reminder of how far I have to go musically.

At the sound check, Dave was very helpful in terms of guiding us through the ways to deal with a very large room (Gusman Hall) and in no time we were ready for the concert. My portion of the concert was enjoyable not only to the audience, but especially to myself and the other members of the Frost Sextet. As Dave had stressed, I think we all focused on putting the music first, staying in the moment, and avoiding too many pre-conceived ideas of what it was supposed to sound like. As usual, the music was in many ways much different from the rehearsal (this is normal for jazz, which is largely improvised) and I think we were all very pleased with the direction that it took.

At one point during evening, Dave talked to the audience about the importance of having a sense of ‘community’ and expressed his satisfaction in experiencing our community. I was honored to have Dave Holland become part of our community for his week in Miami, and his residency was probably the most significant musical event henceforth in my time at the University.

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