Master bassist Dave Holland has had a remarkable career, starting in England and flowering when he was recruited to play with Miles Davis in 1969. His speed, power, flexibility and tremendous sense of time made him one of the greatest bass players of his era.
He has had, however, relatively few dates as a leader, but his 1973 (recorded late 1972) ECM album Conference of the Birds is an exceptional recording and a true classic of experimental jazz that has the rare virtue of employing two of the giants of modern saxophone: Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. Any fan of these two knows this was the sole recorded meeting of these venerable figures and they make the most of it, thanks to the stellar rhythmic support of Holland and drummer Barry Altschul.
Holland very simply explains that the title came about because of a regular "conference" of birds singing in his apartment's garden early in the mornings and the spirit of these performances were to be shared with other musicians and people broadly.
The opening tracks "Four Winds" has a nice, memorable melody and then the quartet takes off with a tight and telepathic performance that features an angular and elliptical solo by Rivers, whose sense of timing in working with the deep grooves established by Holland and the precise timekeeping of Altschul is really something to behold.
Rivers may have been seen as "far out" in the "free jazz" sense, but he also was masterful in working with rhythm sections in his playing, as aptly demonstrated here. Braxton joins in toward the end, the two rephrase the theme, and then Braxton works his way with some melodic expression before taking off into the stratosphere, taking Holland and Altschul with him in some very powerful moments.
Braxton's playing has been depicted as cold, intellectual, and forbidding, but with Holland and Altschul hewing to a steady groove, his playing meshes well, just in a very different way than that of Rivers. Towards the end, Rivers jumps back in for some spirited back-and-forth with Braxton and the theme is restated to close out a staggering display of performance.
After that blazing opening, "Q & A" starts off more quietly, but with a particularly inspired choice in having Altschul demonstrate a broad tonal range of percussion. He's been accused of being too busy and showy, but this is an excellent example of how a great drummer utilizes the full resources of a kit. The horns enter with Rivers on flute and Braxton on clarinet and the combination works really well in the context of the call-and-response format the title indicates. Holland goes arco in some of his playing, as well, moving the piece into more of an atmospheric evocation of sound, but the piece never meanders unnecessarily, partially because that rhythm section keeps the proceedings well grounded.
Holland takes a solo turn on the title track and, invariably, many people shudder at the thought of listening through another interminable bass solo. Holland, however, keeps it short and then gets into a nice strumming groove with the melodic statements offered by Braxton and Rivers on clarinet and flute. Altschul mainly keeps things simple on cymbals for color. The overall effect is a beautiful and classic piece.
"Interception" moves things back into speedy territory, much like "Four Winds" and Rivers takes the first solo, followed by Holland's strong and nimble solo. After a restatement of the theme, in comes Braxton for his distinctive voice as he utilizes a variety of resources, including overblowing, long sinuous runs and voice-like statements in his amazing work before the ensemble returns to the theme and closes out with an Altschul solo.
"Now Here (Nowhere)" begins with a subdued intro and interplay between the horns and bass with some percussive effects and is another example of emotion, economy and interplay that shows that "free jazz" can also be highly melodic, atmospheric and imaginative.
The closer is "See Saw" and Rivers begins again, with his solo another example of how well he integrates with the bass and drums--just a gorgeously executed performance from a greatly-underappreciated master. A brief evocation of the theme then leads to Braxton and it is another broad expression and a roaring solo at that. When Rivers joins back for the end, there's a sense that this remarkable recording, being the only meeting between these two giants and supported and promoted by a sterling rhythm section, is a truly rare example of how experimental jazz is at its most successful.
Holland may also be somewhat underappreciated, if not for his playing, then at least for his ability to compose excellent material and then recruit some of the finest musicians in jazz to execute a stellar album. Conference of the Birds is a summit of selfless musicians at their best and ECM, a new label at the time primarily formed to record Keith Jarrett deserves all praise for recording it.