Monday, September 06, 2010


Well, this particular stretch of vinyl is hitting on some seminal items for me. First "'Coon Bid'ness", then Hendrix, now "Conference of the Birds" (I skipped over Andrew Hill and Billie Holiday, not thinking I could write anything remotely interesting about either, as much as I enjoy them)

But this was quite a revelatory release for me, I guess from the Spring of '73. It was recorded on November 30, 1972 and, even had I been far more aware of what was occurring in avant jazz at the time, I imagine this would still have come as something of a shocker. Holland, already coming from the entirely unreasonable dual association with Miles and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, forged a rather unique melding of the avant garde with some hard driving tunes (along with other, freer investigations, of equal merit to me). I believe there was a five star review in downbeat when CotB arrived that made these points, doubtless spurring my purchase.

It was the first time I'd heard Braxton or Rivers, a fact that immediately sent me off finding everything I could by those two. A great pairing, two very different sounds, the former smooth and sinuous even when a-roar, the latter all grit, spittle and impending hoarseness. But more than that, it's Holland's compositions and the balance with which they're arrayed here that still resonate powerfully. Three of the pieces are post-boppish, each with exciting heads; the two freer works are marvelously knotty, especially "Q&A" with its wonderful resolution, unexpectedly on first hearing, to a delightful theme; and then the title track which is the unique piece, the sublimely gorgeous, folk-like melody, the exceedingly delicate interplay of Rivers and Braxton on flute and soprano and, more than anything, Holland's incredibly song-like work beneath and between. Concentrate on his lines sometime--utterly beautiful and free.

I posted the cover photo on facebook earlier today and received a few comments referring to this album as "perfect" and "flawless". Within the parameters of new jazz in the early 70s, I do think this is about as close as you get in some respects. I may love "Les Stances a Sophie" more, but as an entirety, "Conference of the Birds" is extraordinary--everything about it works, it remains exciting, the beauty hasn't faded. It probably goes without saying that, for my money, Holland as leader never again came close to this.

But I say that for a good many releases from this period...still not quite sure if that's nostalgia talking or if it's at least semi-objective. But, for instance, did Sam Rivers ever put to wax anything more impressive than "Streams" (1973)? Not to these ears. Braxton is at least a partial exception--I haven't kept up for a good while, but I know, for instance, that parts of "Willisau (1991)" are as strong as anything I've heard from him. But for so many, that late 60s-early 70s period strikes me as bearing unexpectedly and uniquely luscious fruit.

I have Holland's solo cello LP, "Life Cycles" (1983) a well and gave it a spin earlier. Quite lovely, really, also holding up well. Should get more mention than it does. When he indulges in his more romantic and folkish side, there's often great beauty to be heard.

The only other vinyl here with Holland as leader is his first quintet album for ECM, also from 1983, "Jumpin' In", with Kenny Wheeler, Julian Priester and a youthful Steve Coleman. I suppose it's fine (and I bought three or four more of this incarnation on disc in subsequent years) but it's tough for me to listen to now, too routine, too much a kind of avant answer to Wynton and that crowd, "Look--we avant guys can swing too!" Too bad.

9 comments:

Captain Hate said...

I first heard this before my ears were really "ready" for it and my reaction was one of confusion. After the light went on for both Rivers and Braxton and I revisited it, it sounded as good as anything I've ever heard. If it wouldn't make the final cut for a deserted island, it would only be because I've listened to it so often that I almost know every note by heart.

One thing you leave out in the unusual pairing of Brax and Sam is that Holland and Altschul made up the rhythm section of both reedists' groups at the time. And seeing the Coleman, Wheeler, Priester & Smith version of Holland's group in concert twice were two of my best concert experiences ever.

Brian Olewnick said...

That's true about Holland and Altschul being with Rivers at that point? Don't doubt it though I don't think I've heard a recording of that trio. I do love the Rivers/Holland duos on IAI and I think I have Altschul with him somewhere, but don't recall all three together (probably forgetting something)

Because of the towering strength of "Streams", I tend to associate this era Rivers with McBee and Connors. I know there was a kind of comp of various trios released on Impulse called "Hues" from around the same time--I forget if I still have that, never cared for it much--maybe Holland/Altschul were in there.

Captain Hate said...

I think Holland/Altschul are on some of the "Hues" cuts. If you check the Rivers online sessionography it points out some gigs they played around the time when COTB was recorded, one with Thurmond Barker and one with Paul Bley. To be honest I thought there were more recorded examples.

kostis kilymis said...

well, checking discogs -and assuming the info there to be reliable, it seems Altschul and Holland were pretty much his main rhythm section on the records that came out around '76 & '77, most of them trio dates. "Sizzle", "The Quest", "Paragon", an lp with one Mario Schiano, and some stray tracks on other releases. But those were all recorded a good 3-4 years after "COTB"

premo said...

A shame you skipped over Andrew Hill; discovering the Blue Note reissue One for One when it came out in the 70s was a milestone for me.

Brian Olewnick said...

Craig, I only have, on vinyl, the Arista release, "Spiral", which I've always been half and half on and, in any case, couldn't really think of anything to say about.

premo said...

Yes, Spiral I remember as disappointing, mainly because there are too many different groupings of musicians to make a coherent album. It was a rare Cuscuna slip-up, IMO.

Vincent Kargatis said...

Brian, did you happen to reverse your descriptions of Braxton and Rivers's sounds in para 3? They seem that way to me.

Brian Olewnick said...

Not at all! I always hear Braxton as, essentially, sinuous and smooth (a la Konitz and Desmond) while Rivers has, for me, a deep, throaty quality with much (beautiful) rasp.