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Dave Holland — front and center

SAUGERTIES, N.Y. — Jazz bassists are typically cast in a supporting rather than a leading role, relegated to the back of the bandstand with the rhythm section.

But at New York's Birdland Club recently, Dave Holland stood front and center, surrounded by his quintet, playing mostly his own compositions.

During the set, the British-born Holland would switch roles, laying down deep vamps to uplift the other musicians, dialoguing with the soloists and occasionally demonstrating his own virtuosity with a bass solo. During some stirring group interplay, Holland would break into a big smile, displaying his joy in unselfish music-making.

The 57-year-old Holland has found the right balance to appeal to jazz fans and critics alike.

"I think our music reaches out to people at the same time it challenges them, but in a friendly way," said Holland, sitting in the wood-beamed living room of his 19th century farmhouse. "It's a matter of combining simple and complex elements. One of my role models has been Duke Ellington."

Holland is modest about his achievements, but one would have to go back to Charles Mingus, who died in 1979, to find a bassist making a comparable impact on the jazz scene of his day as a player, bandleader, composer and arranger.

Last year, Holland outdid the many jazz greats who preceded him when he became the first musician ever to sweep four categories in both Down Beat magazine's critics and readers polls — jazz artist, jazz album (for his quintet CD "Not For Nothin' "), acoustic group and acoustic bassist of the year.

This year, Holland has also reached the top as a big-band leader. He won the Grammy for best large jazz ensemble for his CD "What Goes Around," and the group was chosen the top big band in the Down Beat critics poll.

Holland is also part of the all-star collective jazz quartet ScoLoHoFo (with guitarist John Scofield, saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Al Foster), whose debut CD "Oh!" was released in January.

Holland has spent the fall touring the United States with his quintet, but for those who couldn't make one of the gigs, his new double-CD, "Extended Play," his first in-concert recording as a leader, offers a chance to hear the group playing a typical two-set concert at Birdland with nearly two hours and 15 minutes of music.

"I had been getting a lot of e-mails from our fans asking when are you going to do a live recording," said Holland. "I wanted to record the band in a live setting to document the more expansive approach the band takes during a performance. . . . It shows the way the band has developed . . . and that our music is in a constant state of becoming."

Holland's supporting cast has helped him develop a unique sound. There is the unusual front line combining Robin Eubanks' trombone and Chris Potter's saxophones. Instead of a pianist, vibraphonist Steve Nelson plays various roles, lightly filling in the chords, weaving exquisite solos, and playing percussively. The drummer, until recently Billy Kilson, plays everything from traditional 3/4 jazz beats to odd meters and funk, African and Cuban rhythms.

Rather than indulge in excessive bass solos with the band, Holland uses other outlets for displaying his virtuosity, including recent performances with a chamber orchestra of "Bass Inventions," a concerto written for him by British composer Marc Anthony Turnage.

"I'm not trying to prove anything like this is my band, check me out," said Holland. "My role as a bass player is to try and be supportive and to contribute something to the music."

Holland acknowledges Mingus as one of his main inspirations, particularly in the way he combined new and traditional styles. Holland's big-band CD includes a tribute, "Blues for C.M."

But it would be hard to find two more opposite personalities as bandleaders. Mingus could be fiery, demanding and dictatorial. Holland is soft-spoken and laid-back.

"For me, it's always been about a group statement in the music," said Holland. "It's not a dictatorial but a democratic situation . . . everybody has a big part in decision-making during the performance. . . . We're all creating the music together and we surprise each other each night."

It's a testimony to Holland that he's kept his present quintet together for six years with only one personnel change — with drummer Nate Smith replacing Kilson on the current tour — even though its members are leaders in their own right.

"Dave has a real focus of what he wants his music to sound like, but he doesn't impose it in an uncomfortable way," said the 32-year-old Potter. "The music feels like it's still evolving."

The quintet forms the core of Holland's 13-piece big band, which debuted at the 2000 Montreal jazz festival. "What Goes Around" featured reworked versions of compositions previously recorded by Holland's small ensembles. Its second CD, due out next year, will present material written for the big band, including Holland's "Monterey Suite," commissioned for the 2001 Monterey jazz festival.

Holland's bandleading approach was forged by his experience with Miles Davis. Like the trumpeter, he encourages his bandmates to bring in their own compositions, adding to the stylistic diversity.

"Miles was somebody who didn't say a lot about the music," Holland recalled. "He made a point of finding the right musicians . . . so that he didn't have to do a lot of explaining."

It was Davis' prescience as a talent scout that helped start Holland's career in the United States. Holland, whose father left home when he was an infant, grew up in a British working-class family. He took up the electric bass at 13, but switched to the acoustic bass after hearing jazz recordings featuring Ray Brown and Leroy Vinegar.

Holland dropped out of school to join a dance band playing resorts in northern England. Then, he won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and became a regular on London's jazz scene.

In July 1968, Davis walked into Ronnie Scott's club and heard the 21-year-old Holland accompanying the intermission singer. Davis was sufficiently impressed to offer Holland a plane ticket to New York and an invitation to replace Ron Carter in his quintet.

Holland admits he felt "a little overwhelmed" to arrive in the United States during the tumultuous summer of 1968 and join what many consider to be one of the all-time great jazz ensembles with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams.

"I approached it with the idea that even if I'm on the plane back to England in a week, at least I will have had a week of hopefully learning something from playing in this incredible band," said Holland, who still bears traces of his northern British accent. "Miles made me feel very welcome."

The weeks turned into months, and Holland remained as Davis revamped his band and helped forge the jazz-rock fusion movement with such groundbreaking albums as "In A Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew."

The months turned into years, and Holland and pianist Chick Corea left Davis to form the acoustic avant-garde quartet Circle. Holland made his recording debut as a leader in 1972 with "Conference of the Birds," considered a new jazz masterpiece.

The years turned into decades, as Holland recorded nearly three dozen albums for the ECM label, including CDs with his own small ensembles, solo recordings on cello and bass, and sessions with the Gateway trio with guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Since 1977, home has been the farm house set among cornfields in Saugerties, about 100 miles north of New York City, a peaceful setting for practicing and composing.

Holland describes his life as an "amazing musical journey." He is open-minded about playing different kinds of music and looks for bandmates with a similar range of experiences.

Holland's live CD includes an extended version of his tune "Prime Directive" — a funky, celebratory group jam that also was the title track of a 2000 quintet album. Although the title is derived from "Star Trek," Holland has something else in mind.

"The prime directive of this band is to have fun and to enjoy the music," said Holland. "Things do get very complicated sometimes . . . and there's all kinds of pressures . . . but the actual act of making music should be a pleasurable experience. . . . We're a group of musicians who enjoy playing together and want to keep it going as long as we can."