Dave Holland was 21 when he got the phone call that changed his life.
It was 1968, and he was studying at London's Guildhall School of Music. He had played in jazz bands throughout his teen-age years, and had even performed with sax greats Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. But nothing prepared him, when he answered the phone, for the raspy voice of Miles Davis. Davis had listened to Holland play and was asking the young British bassist to join his band.
Holland was, he confesses, astonished. "I mean, I've always been quite sincere about my music, tried to play in a way that was right for the musical situation I was in," he explains on the phone from New York. "But when he heard me, I was backing a vocalist -- it was fairly standard type of setting, not anything groundbreaking. He listened and heard something he liked.
"He never told me why he hired me. I didn't say, 'What was it about my playing that you liked?' And that wasn't the point. The point was I was given that opportunity. And in all those situations, I didn't know how long I'd have the gig, whether it would be a day or a week or a year."
Holland stayed with the band for two years, contributing to a number of classic Miles Davis albums, including "In a Silent Way" and the famous fusion record "Bitches Brew." Now 54, he remembers the trumpet star with affection and admiration.
"He understood what having a group meant," he says. "He knew the dynamics of the group, what a leader should or shouldn't do. He led with a very gentle touch. And he left a good deal of creative room for people who worked with him."
Looking back on how young he was when he joined Davis' band, he laughs. "I was actually older than Tony Williams," he says. "He joined Miles when he was 16, which was extraordinary. His concepts were strongly developed.
"Miles was used to having young people in his band, and liked it. I think he liked the energy they brought, the freshness."
Judging from his own band, Holland seems to have taken a few cues from his old boss. His combo, which he's bringing with him for a sold-out concert at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery next Sunday, has to be one of the hottest around. It's a veritable dream team, made up of musicians who are all impressive draws in their own right.
Trombone ace Robin Eubanks, for instance, has worked with J.J. Johnson and McCoy Tyner, toured with the Talking Heads and Barbra Streisand, and released acclaimed CDs in his own name. Vibes player Steve Nelson, also with recordings to his credit, has played with Kenny Barron, Johnny Griffin and Jackie McLean.
Saxophonist Chris Potter, still in his 20s, had an unorthodox start to his career, as a sideman to Charlie Parker's fabled sidekick Red Rodney -- and also, for a while, belonged to the band Steely Dan. Drummer Billy Kilson, who played on the soundtrack of the Spike Lee movie "Malcolm X," has recorded with such well-known jazz figures as Bob James, Dianne Reeves and Billy Childs.
There's no pianist in the band -- and the absence of a keyboard, Holland acknowledges, was a conscious decision. "Sometimes a piano can be overbearing," he says. The vibes, he points out, provide harmony. "I like the sound of the vibraphone. It has a percussion element to it. And the way Steve plays them, he uses it very sparingly. He leaves a lot of room harmonically for you to work with."
Teamwork clearly is important to Holland. "To me, the band has a unique sound," he says. "It comes from the players in it and the sounds they make together."
'I was quite shy'
Though Holland has lived in New York since 1968, he still has more than a slight accent. He speaks carefully, with a touch of British reserve.
By the time he joined Davis' group, he explains, he had been studying bass for four years with James Merritt, the principal bassist for the London Philharmonic. "He gave me a very good technical foundation," he says. "The orchestra experience and exposure, other kinds of music, all these things are very important."
As a jazz musician, Holland would profit from his knowledge of classical music -- particularly such classical composers as Bela Bartok, whose rhythms and melodies intrigued him. "His music is based on a lot of folk elements, sounds not unfamiliar to jazz music," he says. "Dance has always been connected to jazz."
However, he adds, jazz can't be learned in a classroom. "The experience of playing jazz can only be had by doing that," he says. "Jazz is a very different sort of musical language. The phrasing is different, the techniques required in the left and right hand are unique in music. A classical background has definite benefits, but I don't think you can be trained in classical music and take it for granted that you'll be able to play jazz. The experience of playing with music and playing with masters, studying it . . . usually the classical lessons happen in parallel with that."
When Holland got his start as a jazz musician, luck, as well as talent, was on his side. London was a lively jazz center and a lot of famous musicians passed through -- including Webster and Hawkins, the towering sax legends.
"Having the opportunity to play with people like that, there's nothing like it for any player," Holland marvels. "To stand next to great masters like that and accompany them and match their level of playing -- which you don't as a young player. . ." He laughs.
"I didn't get any special words of encouragement -- they were very private people -- but they didn't complain. And that was good."
At first, Holland confesses, he was awed by such company, and his relationship with the two titans remained on the formal side. "As a young player, I was quite shy. I gave them a lot of respect," he says. "I didn't go over and chat, say, 'How was it with Count Basie?' I waited for them to say something to me.
"With Miles," he adds, "I was getting more outward and mature. We had interesting conversations. When I joined the band, I was living on the Upper West Side, the 72nd Street area, near where Miles lived. He'd invite me over to his house. He seemed very generous and giving."
Such memories, Holland admits, are at odds with the public's conception of an irascible, outspoken Miles. "Some things he said were said more for effect," he says, thoughtfully. "Sometimes he meant them. But he struck me as a gentle man, a shy man, in many ways." Davis, he says, would compress whole paragraphs into a few words. "He really spoke very clearly about what he was thinking, in a very abbreviated way."
Leaving the Davis group in 1970, he formed the band Circle with Chick Corea and played briefly with Thelonious Monk. In 1973, he released his first album under his own name, "Conference of the Birds." Holland is the king of collaboration. He has teamed up with countless heavy hitters over the years -- among them Stan Getz, whose band he joined in 1973, and Joe Henderson (Holland appeared on his "Porgy and Bess" project). He still records with Gateway, a group he formed in 1975 with John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
These days, he's in the prime of his career. Last year, the Down Beat Critics' Poll named him best acoustic bass player. His most recent CD, "Points of View," won him a Grammy nomination, and his next recording, "Prime Directive," is due for release in February. In March, he's beginning another European tour (his Web site, www.daveholland.com, lists his exhausting schedule).
What's left for such an artist to do? Is there anyone with whom Holland would love to share the bandstand? He laughs, obviously relishing the question. "Sonny Rollins," he says without hesitation.
Unabashed, he rhapsodizes about the saxophone kingpin. "He's a great improviser, one of the masters," he says. "Of course, he's had a fine bass player, Bob Cranshaw, with him for many years," he adds, wistfully. "It would be a great experience to play for him, a learning and creative experience. I wouldn't even talk about collaboration. He could hire me any time."