Sam Rivers soprano and tenor saxophones, flute
George Lewis trombone
Dave Holland bass
Thurman Barker drums, marimba
Recorded December 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
It’s a funny thing about getting lost: the more one tries to do it consciously, the more one discovers new pieces to fit into the jigsaw puzzle of familiar things. Jazz legend Sam Rivers, who made his only other ECM appearance on the classic Conference of the Birds, proved this sonically when he brought his patented “inside-out” technique to bear alongside Dave Holland, George Lewis, and Thurman Barker upon this free jazz date from 1979. Now in his 88th year, Rivers’s legacy continues to yield new nuggets of audio wisdom through such albums as Contrasts.
The album opens in “Circles” with some chewy improv. Thick horns and brittle drumming provide plenty of interplay to keep our wits on a tight leash. Lewis seems the most at home here, providing a bubbling cauldron of likeminded flights. It is the first in a smattering of freer tracks, the others being the slowly building “Solace” and perhaps the most abstract aside, “Images.” This leaves us with a hefty set of rhythm-driven powerhouses. “Zip” tightens the purse strings with an ever-moving tenor for some wholesome, head-nodding goodness. This joint also serves up a heaping drum solo on the side. Our frontman opts for flute in the swinging “Verve” with a renewed spring in his step. Convincing monologues from Holland and Lewis ease into a slow and timid end. “Lines” reprises that contagious soprano sax against an omniscient rhythm section before bowing out for some quality bass time. “Dazzle” brings exactly that, freeing our minds with a Braxton-esque tenor and tap-dancing bass work. Lewis is more than up to the task, scurrying in with Rivers in their joint commitment to going deeper.
As one of ECM’s bolder sessions, Contrasts deserves shelf space right next to George Adams’s Sound Suggestions. It is nothing if not about contrasts: the cohesive and the fractured, uprightness and vertigo. Colorful, straightforward, stirring.
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Dave Holland Quartet
Conference Of The Birds
Dave Holland bass
Sam Rivers reeds, flute
Anthony Braxton reeds, flute
Barry Altschul percussion, marimba
Recorded November 30, 1972 at Allegro Studio, New York City
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Manfred Eicher
As someone who began with ECM New Series releases long before easing into the world of ECM proper, my initial explorations of the latter led me to decidedly contemporary avenues of jazz and to a particular fondness for the many Norwegian projects represented by the label. Only in recent years have I begun to pan for gold in the massive back catalog that was produced before I was born, and among the many fine nuggets to emerge from the sediment is this most splendid effort.
Phenomenal wind work from Braxton and Rivers makes this a decadent studio treat, grinding out equally captivating solos, whether over a tight rhythm section or in the throes of a looser backdrop. Though easily billed as a “free jazz” album, Conference Of The Birds remains a fine testament to a relatively accessible strand of the form. A child of the post-bop generation, Holland takes the back seat for the most part and lets his reedmen take center stage. Whimsical elements such as the unexpected coach’s whistle in “Q & A” comingle with the solid relay races of “Four Winds” and “See-Saw.” The title track provides the most delicate textures on the album with its effortless flourishes and gorgeous bass intro, acting as a fragrant palate-cleanser before launching us into the ecstatic free-for-all that is “Interception.” Each cut has its own distinct flavor, lending a vibrant anticipation to every break.
Conference Of The Birds is special to me for at least three reasons: (1) It evokes an important period of musical and political transition that I will never experience directly. Moods are wrought in iron and blown glass, so that no matter how many times the structure is destroyed, one can always melt the pieces down again into something new. This was a time in which the entire world was either on its knees or throwing off the shackles of normalcy in favor of unrestricted forms of expression. This duplicitous spirit of oppression and liberation is embodied perfectly in the sounds. (2) One can trace a dark and lasting thread from Holland’s early work to the present. This set in particular allows us to see his foundational strength, the whimsical order for which he has become so well known. (3) This album is, for me at least, one example of what makes jazz so uplifting: a spirit of shared knowledge, a hermetic seal ruptured for the sake of communal awareness, and the letting go of one’s own inhibitions amid an unforgiving social order.
Offer it your hand, and you may be surprised where it leads.
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