"Any band I put together starts with the players and starts also with an idea,” said jazz bassist Dave Holland, who leads Prism on Sunday at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
His British midlands accent still audible after 40 years in the Hudson Valley, Holland learned this bandleader’s principle early, arriving in New York at 21 to play with Miles Davis.
Holland played ukulele at 5, rock guitar at 10, electric bass at 15 when he left school to play professionally, then switched to acoustic bass at 17, inspired by Ray Brown and Leroy Vinnegar. Playing Ronnie Scott’s London jazz club at night opposite American greats — Holland cited Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Joe Henderson, Rex Stewart, James Moody and Bill Evans, in whose trio he met friend and sometime playing partner Jack DeJohnette — balanced Holland’s daytime musical education. He studied with classical bassist James Merrett and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Armed with deep technical training, on-the-bandstand experience in all directions, a fearless versatility and exploratory spirit, Holland has become one of the most respected, versatile and adventurous creative forces in contemporary jazz.
“People talk about ‘self-taught,’ ” he said. “But I learned about jazz from listening to records and other musicians.”
Jazz Fest lineup
Saturday Main Stage: Earth Wind & Fire; Dr. Lonnie Smith Octet; Terence Blanchard; the Mike Stern/Bill Evans Band with Steve Smith and Tom Kennedy; Jon Batiste & Stay Human; Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters; Robin McKelle & The Flytones.
Saturday Gazebo: Marc Cary Focus Trio with Rashaan Carter and Sameer Gupta; Lew Tabackin Trio, Jaimeo Brown Transcendence with JD Allen and Chris Sholar, Mary Halvorsen Trio with John Herbert and Ches Smith, and Robin McKelle & The Flytones.
Sunday Main Stage: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue; Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra; Patti Austin; Dave Holland’s Prism; Newport Jazz Festival Now 60 with Anat Cohen, Karin Allyson, Randy Brecker and more; and Quinn Sullivan.
Sunday Gazebo: Melissa Alana Crash Trio with Pablo Menares and Francisco Mela; Tim Berne’s Snakeoil with Oscar Noriega, Matt Mitchell and Ches Smith; Warren Wolf & Wolfpack; Sean Jones Quartet with Sullivan Fortner, Luques Curtes and Obed Calvaire; and Quinn Sullivan.
Tickets: Saturday inside $85-$45, lawn $60; Sunday inside $80-$45, lawn $60. 584-9330 www.spac.org.
Learning from Holland’s records would take decades now: He has made more than 40 albums as leader or co-leader and hundreds as a sideman, including nine with Miles Davis (“Filles de Kilimanjaro, 1968, through “Big Fun,” 1972) plus rock on Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up,” bluegrass on John Hartford albums, and blues-jazz on Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis.” He even toured with rocker Roy Orbison.
“It’s all music, as Duke Ellington said,” Holland explained. “There’s good music and there’s the other kind.”
Learning Miles Davis’ brand of good music-making was interactive, shaping his own approach as a leader. “[Miles] led with a very light touch and left a lot of creative room,” recalled Holland. “He welcomed input and let us try different things for a piece, though sometimes there was a specific thing he wanted to have happen — it was a very creative situation, one where you were expected to make a contribution yourself — I had to figure out what to do, and that was very typical of Miles.
“It’s nice to have someone hire you to play and do what you do, rather than try to fit you into a box.”
He explained: “It’s about finding the right people so you can play with not a lot of explaining. The key is finding people who contribute more than you could ever explain. Find the right drummer and he can play things I could never think of. My thing is to create a setting and provide a focus and see what happens.”
What happens in Holland’s music is highly varied in contexts but invariably high quality, often Grammy-honored. His big band has won two Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album Grammys, (2002 and 2005). He won a Best Jazz Instrumental Performance Grammy (1999) for the all-star (really: Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes and Holland) and played on 2008’s Album of the Year Grammy-winner, Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters.”
These days, Holland leads his quintet, a big band, duos with pianist Kenny Barron and with flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela, the Overtone quartet and Prism, the quartet he’ll lead on Sunday at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival.
Like a local gig
Holland said playing Saratoga “is like a local gig for me as a mid-Hudson resident. I love the setting and it’s easy for friends and family to come up and hear the music.”
Prism is Holland with keyboardist Craig Taborn; drummer Eric Harland and guitarist Kevin Eubanks, former leader of the Tonight Show Band and brother of trombonist Robin Eubanks, who plays in Holland’s Quintet.
Holland makes set lists for Prism shows, but happily goes off the map. He said they’ll probably play songs from Prism’s 2013 debut and a newer tunes from a follow-up due this year — “one or two pieces, new for the audience,” Holland said, also promising detours.
“Sometimes in the middle of a set, I decide ‘Maybe we do this instead,’ and I call it on the spot and see what comes out. And I let songs evolve and see what happens, so they take different routes on different days.”
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.