“Certainty is the root of all atrocities” - William Empson
My first few spins of Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds yielded an unpleasant feeling. After already being initiated to the great bass player through his later works such as Critical Mass and fantastic What Goes Around, something about this pinnacle album of avant-garde did not sit well with me. His later works are intensely melodic, more about band interplay than soloing. I knew I was dealing with the avant-garde strain of jazz, so I gave it multiple listens. Difficult music deserves patience and exploration. But this was just not working for me no matter what I did. I would listen in the sun, I would listen in the rain. I listen to it here and I would listen to it there. I did not like it on a run, I did not like it during a walk. I did not like it in a box and I did not like it with a fox. I did not like green eggs and ham, and worse yet, I did not like Conference of the Birds. It wasn’t that it the musicianship was poor– far from it. Instead I found myself yearning for the layered approach of his later work, certain I would find what I was looking for eventually. And that’s where I was faulting.
Until I just put it on one day and listened. Just listened. Nothing else, no special connection, just the music and my brain.
That’s when I realized I was missing the entire point of the record. It is not album melodic progression, it’s an album of contrast. Traditional against experimental, light against heavy, soft against loud, melodic against cacophonous. Suddenly the deeper of the layers became more evident, like the way “Conference of the Bird” moves from avant-garde mimesis of birds to passionately melodic alto sax, bass and woodwind interplay. Or the way “Four Winds” progresses each of its solos from traditional bop phrases to cacophonous screeches and notes that seem to hang in the middle of nowhere, free from any tie to melody, harmony or bass. The record uses melodic motifs, bending them in time and tempo, to create the central hold for the album. The opening phrase of the album reappears in every track, varied slightly so it is never the same, but a perspicacious ear will pick up on the motif. This is the type of technique that requires careful attention from the listener, and part of the reason I had so much difficulty with the album was caused by my crucial ignorance to this technique.
As for the musicianship itself, it was never a mystery to me that the playing was always fantastic. Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton control the sax and woodwind parts to excellent effect. Braxton adds feverish passion to his solos, hanging precariously on the brink of insanity before pulling it back to Earth. Rivers adds a level of grace to the pieces, particularly with his woodwind work, such as on the elegant “Now Here (Nowhere)”. Barry Altschul’s turn at the kit, and marimba, is never exceedingly flashy but rather it is a perfect example of a drummer knowing how to use the components of his kit. He knows when to straight up play time, as with the frenetic closer “See-Saw”, but also displays a keen expressionistic ear as he splashes percussion effectively throughout the classic title track. And when all of these musicians experiments seem to reach out further than the listeners grasp. When the avant-garde expands into free improvisation– there’s Dave Holland. His bass work is as good, if not better, than ever. Conference of the Birds is essentially another showcase piece in the Holland oeuvre, rooting the album when it gets too far out of reach, and adding his own masterful skill to his solos. The album centerpiece “Interception” just wouldn’t be the classic it is without the bass lines and solo.
This is why one should never be certain with their view. Sometimes what you might believe initially turns out to be purely wrong. Once I changed my view, Conference of the Birds opened itself up to reveal all of its complex layers. Not surprisingly I also ended up finding what I originally was desperately trying to grab in the first place. The album is filled with all of the typical Dave Holland signatures, they are just buried a little deeper. The man who played bass on such classic albums as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew is well aware of how to blend traditional bass runs, with avant-garde compositions. His use of folk melodies, asymmetrical time signatures and melodic progression escapes the listener at first. Conference of the Birds seems to be filled with odd lines and strange structures, but with enough listens the structure comes through. The album needs to be taken as a singular entity to understand it, and it certainly must be dived into with an open mind. That’s the lesson I had to learn for Dave Holland’s seminal avant-garde jazz masterstroke, but it’s one that is well worth the time and patience.