Conference of the Birds (1973)

Conference of the Birds album coverJazz will, I suspect, ever remain an unknown continent for me. I bought my first jazz album, one of those low-rent I Love Jazz compilations, when I was too young to drink. I’ve picked away at the music over the thirty-five years since but my knowledge remains only fingernail deep. In the end, I just don’t find the head-solo-chorus jams that are the meat-and-potatoes of jazz that compelling. I struggle to discern the nuances of individual style — I could number the players (mostly pianists) that I can reliably recognise on the fingers of one hand. My favourite recordings run to more developed arrangements, or collective improvisation (better yet, both at the same time…Charles Mingus often delivers here).

Conference of the Birds is a heavyweight session, but of the four players, I’m familiar only with Dave Holland, from his brief tenure with Miles Davis. I’ve never heard a note by Sam Rivers (despite his even briefer tenure with Miles), nor Anthony Braxton, though both are major figures in the avant-garde. Barry Altschul is no more than a name. The generally reliable Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings gives it Core Collection status, rating it a “quiet masterpiece”. That the last edition of the Guide came out in 2008 gives a fair idea of how long I’ve been intending to listen to this album.

Despite the free-playing credentials of the four musicians, Conference of the Birds charges out of the gate with “Four Winds”, a track that sounds almost nostalgic for the bebop era, Altschul laying down a high-tempo cymbal pulse while the horns chase each other. The solos stray a bit too far into goose-throttling territory to have been tolerated at Minton’s but the spirit is there. Three of the six tracks follow that template. Two take a more conversational approach, forgoing steady drum rhythm and long horn lines to open up a space into which the four musicians interject brief phrases. The second and shorter of these, “Now Here (Nowhere)” gradually builds to a perfectly balanced, suspended shimmer. Were it not for the title track, it would be the highlight of the album.

But “Conference of the Birds” is a thing apart. It opens with a meditative bass solo from Holland, before he strums a few chords (sounding implausibly like a Nirvana riff) to announce the main theme. As he picks out the melody, flute and saxophone twine around each other, rising into the air. As the theme repeats, Altschul moves from hand percussion to cymbals to marimba. Inspired, apparently, by the sounds of the dawn chorus outside Holland’s London flat, the melody seems to reach centuries back in time. It’s like little else I’ve heard in jazz — maybe Coltrane’s version of “Greensleeves” from Africa/Brass is a second cousin — and I wonder if Holland had perhaps been listening to some of the jazz-adjacent UK folk bands like Pentangle? Either way, it’s a limpid, spellbinding piece of music that immediately reminds you that this is, after all, an ECM album.

This post is the second in an occasional series, in which I’m working through the span of life, picking an album (and, preferably, artist) new to me for each year of my life. Previous posts.

Thoughts, hopes, exhortations?