If you are interested in places where magical music was created and you happen to be in New York City, you can cover a good chunk of music history if you start at the Brill building on Broadway street, head north and take a right on 52nd street for one block to look at the former Columbia Studios building on 7th Avenue. Between these two buildings you covered a lifetime of classic jazz, pop and everything in between. But during that quick stroll you will pass 1650 Broadway, not as famed a spot but no less significant in music history. The building, today housing the Iridium Jazz club, was home to the music publishing company Aldon Music which released countless hits by writers such as Phil Spector, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond and Cynthia Weil. The basement of 1650 Broadway used to be the home of Allegro Sound Studios were many pop singles were cut in the 60s. The subway run just below the studio and recording sessions often had to wait for the train to pass. In the 70s the studio changed its name to Generation Sound Studios and focused on Jazz, and during the 70s was responsible for recording a string of great free jazz sessions for record labels such as Impulse, Black Saint, Muse and most importantly ECM.
On November 30, 1972 Dave Holland went into that studio with some of the best free jazz musicians around to record his debut album as a leader. With Saxophonist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul he played in the group Circle, which also included Chick Corea. The group recorded the excellent record Paris Concert a year earlier on ECM Records. The fourth musician on the session was saxophonist Sam Rivers, who in 1964 briefly joined the Miles Davis Quintet but his style was too out there for Miles and he was replaced by Wayne Shorter, leading to the formation of Miles’ classic 60s quintet. Rivers went on to release a number of fantastic records with Blue Note Records in the 60s. The single session on that November day in 1972 at Allegro Sound Studios yielded one of the best free jazz albums of the period, Conference of the Birds.
Holland was on his fourth year in the United States after his arrival in New York from London in 1968 on the invitation of Miles Davis. He spent two years with Miles, during which he was part of the trumpeter’s working band and also participated in the recording of the timeless albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. After he left Miles he started a lasting association with ECM Records in 1971 with the album A.R.C, a trio with Chick Corea and Barry Altschul, the same trio that played on Chick Corea’s The Song of Singing album in 1969. That led to the Circle group with the addition of Anthony Braxton, another frequent collaborator of Holland during the 70s.
In 1972 Holland was very active in wide-ranging musical endeavors, acting as recording session musician on non-jazz records such as Bonnie Raitt’s Give it Up, banjo player John Hartford’s Morning Bugle, and as a jazz bass sideman on Joe Henderson’s Black is The Color.
While Dave Holland is best known as an excellent bass player, his talent as a composer is what draws me into his music. On his website Holland traces the beginnings of his composing career: “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.” Dave Holland writes complex arrangements and adds intricate rhythmic parts that make it difficult sometimes to find the “1”, the starting point of the rhythmic cycle. However his compositions are never without an inner logic that you can follow, and in many cases are pretty melodic and enjoyable to the average listener. In this respect he is unique in the free jazz improvisation field where so much recorded music can only be appreciated by a limited audience. Holland cites John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman and Kenny Wheeler as influences on him as a composer, and it is no coincidence that they all had the ability to write beautiful and lyrical passages of music while still able to stretch beyond conventional boundaries when they wanted to.
The sound engineer on the recording session for Conference of the Birds was Tony May, who was one of Manfred Eicher’s go to engineers when an ECM recording was made in New York in the 70s. Like his colleagues Jan Erik Kongshaug in Norway and Martin Wieland in Germany he was able to get the distinct sound that the ECM label is so famous for. Manfred Eicher has a very specific vision of how jazz recordings should sound like, and it is because of him and his sound engineers that the ECM sound is so revered. Tony May’s engineering credits can be found on some of the label’s best albums from the period, including Chick Corea’s first Return to Forever album and John Abercrombie’s Timeless. Tony May was also the engineer on Keith Jarrett’s American quartet recordings or Impulse including Forth Yawuh and Mysteries, and he branched out of the jazz idiom to engineer many fantastic albums. His crown achievement is the engineering role on Van Morrison’s Moondance, recorded in 1969 and release in 1970.
The group of musicians playing on Conference of the Birds kept collaborating in different combinations through the 70s. Braxton led a band in the mid 70s that included Dave Holland and Barry Altschul, as well as the great and late trumpet player Kenny Wheeler. Together they released the album Five Pieces in 1975. Dave Holland and Sam Rivers released a couple of duet albums in 1976, both recorded in a day-long session on December 9, 1975. Both are excellent and showcase their mastery on their respective instruments (Sam Rivers plays not only saxophones but also flute and piano) and their ability to play free improvisational music of the highest degree.
While Conference of the Birds is certainly a free jazz combo album, the title tune is not what you might associate with that style. I find that some of the fiercest free jazz artists can write the most lyrical and serene tunes, for example Lonely Woman by Ornette Coleman. Conference of the Birds is an ensemble piece with a form of a repeating melody, and melodic improvisations that make it sound a little different each time it repeats. Holland wrote the following text at the back of the records: “While living in London I had an apartment with a small garden. During the summer around 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, just as the day began, birds would gather here one by one and sing together, each declaring its freedom in song. It is my wish to share this same spirit with other musicians and communicate it to the people.”
I think that he perfectly captured what he was aiming for. After the opening bass solo, the mantra-like 5/4 time signature rhythm is introduced with bass and percussion, and then the melody starts. I love the interplay between Braxton and Rivers and how the melody ends almost unresolved, linking the end of one cycle to the beginning of the next. Holland loves to play with time signatures, and on this tune he farther complicates things by throwing a 2/4 measure at the end of each cycle, for good measure. Barry Altschul contributes wonderful embellishments on this piece, moving from percussion to drums to marimba. I am not into ranking of music pieces and have no desert island records or top 10 lists, but Conference of the Birds is one of my favorite pieces of music in any genre, and certainly a great moment in free jazz history.
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