As I mentioned in my recent email newsletter, we are starting a monthly feature on my blog called simply, “Ask Dave.” I receive quite a few questions about my career and playing music in general via email, and rather than respond privately, I thought I would make my answers available for everyone to read. We will pick several submissions at the end of every month and post the answers here. You can ask questions about my career and music or ask for advice about your playing—anything, really. However, please direct your inquiries about bookings for live appearances or teaching engagements to the appropriate contacts.
If you have questions for me for next month’s feature, you can either pose them in the comments sections of this post or send them to me via email at email@example.com.
This month’s questions come from a fan who is working on a research paper about my music. If you have any follow-up questions, you can post them in the comments section.
1. Your first album as a leader (“Conference of the Birds”) was released in 1972. But my question is: Has composing always been a part of your musical life? Does the process of composing have much earlier roots in your life?
I wrote my first compositions around 1967, when I was living in London, and I wrote them for bands that I played with. There was a trio led by John Surman and another group that was put together by John McLaughlin. They were both writing and I wanted to make a contribution, not only as a bass player but also as a composer. Since then, almost all my writing has been for particular projects. When I moved to New York in 1968 to play with Miles, he encouraged me to work on my piano playing to expand my musical vocabulary. This helped me develop my writing as well as my playing. Jazz composers who have influenced me include John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman and Kenny Wheeler. Classical composers include Bartok, Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy.
2. Did the “British invasion” of rock in the 1960s have a big effect on you? Are there any bands that specifically influenced you early on, or recently, other than jazz artists?
I joined my first band in 1959, when I was 13. I was playing bass guitar at the time and we played cover versions of the popular songs of the day by early Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues artists. American music influenced a lot of the young musicians at that time. Many working class kids like myself found an escape in music and a lot of the groups that developed in the sixties came from the same background.
3. In your recent group configurations you employ the use of vibraphone as your harmonic anchor. How does the timbre of this particular instrument influence your composing for these groups?
The reason I have vibraphone in the band is because of the way Steve Nelson plays it. Working with Steve for the last 16 years has been inspiring. He’s a great improviser and has although he’s deeply rooted in the jazz tradition he’s developed a very personal approach. His style of playing and the percussive and sonic nature of the instrument has certainly influenced my composing.
4. Early on in your career you seem to have preferred very dense improvisations over free structures. There seems to be a progression to more consonant harmonies and melodies. Can you describe this progression?
Not really. I have just tried to follow the musical direction that have seems relevant to where my musical interests lie and to the times that I’m living in. The people I’ve played with have certainly influenced my writing. I try to write music that will provide a creative vehicle for their individual approach. My musical experiences have always taken a number of parallel approaches, and as I’ve developed I’ve tried to weave them into a cohesive statement.
5. Your association with Miles Davis is well documented. Can you describe how his band-leading processes have influenced you?
He had a way of stripping a composition down to it’s essence and then letting the musicians fill in the spaces. I think he trusted the musicians in his band to find our own creative solutions. We were given a lot of creative freedom, and I like to do that with my groups. I know that I’ve always enjoyed playing music that has a clear intent but that also gives me room to make a personal contribution. It’s all about choosing the right musicians. Then, like Miles, you don’t have to say much!