by David Menestres
There are few things that trigger memory the way a favorite album will. The smell of your old car burning oil, summer humidity pouring in your open windows faster than the breeze you are desperately hoping will cool you off can come in, one of your favorite albums on the stereo, too intense to be driving music but you have it blasting anyway.
I’m not sure when I first learned of Dave Holland. As a young bass player, his was a name I constantly heard, but it is doubtful I’d heard his playing with anyone but Miles Davis prior to picking up a CD copy of Conference of the Birds somewhere around 2000 or 2001. The works of Holland, Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, and Barry Altschul have since come to mean a lot to me, but it took me a while to get there.
The first time I listened to Conference of the Birds, I gave it one spin and put it back on the shelf. A few months later I listened to it again, and again put it back. About a year or so after, I put it on again, and again and again and again. After my CD became so damaged from overuse it would no longer play, I bought it again.
ECM has recently reissued Conference of the Birds on 180 gram vinyl (with the longest download code I have ever seen; it probably takes fewer characters to launch an ICBM). The new pressing sounds wonderful. (Get it from Amazon.) Listening to it today, it still seems like such a forward-looking album. And from forty-plus years later, one can see so much of Holland’s compositional style is already set firmly in place: beautiful melodies that shift on top of slightly odd grooves, just enough of an idea to provide a launching point for playing of such fierce and beautiful invention. There is a moment in “Now Here (Nowhere)” that, aside from invoking Sun Ra’s love of wordplay, recalls the best of Charles Mingus’s writing for winds. Altschul’s marimba on the title track seems to point towards the dark sound of Holland’s quintet, with Steve Nelson on marimba, some twenty years later. The cover art, a reproduction of the original, of course looks great in the larger format, but it’s merely credited as “Pueblo design” with no other details as to its origins. Similarly, the symbols on the back are only described as coming from The Book of Signs.
I was always curious what happened to Dave Holland’s avant-garde leanings. Prior to Conference of the Birds, in addition to his now legendary time with Miles, Holland had released duo albums on ECM, one with Derek Bailey (Improvisations for Cello and Guitar, which is out of print) and one with Barre Phillips (Music for Two Basses, which is not—get it from Amazon). After Conference, he appeared again with Braxton on Five Pieces, 1975, now included in the Mosaic Complete Arista Recordings box set, and on a self-titled album of duets with Sam Rivers, and on several bluegrass albums with John Hartford and Vassar Clements.
But by the 1980s, Holland had turned towards more conventional music, playing with various configurations of players including alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (who was also on Five Pieces), Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and guitarist Kevin Eubanks. In the mid ’90s, he formed his quintet with Steve Nelson, saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and drummer Billy Kilson. I love much of this music; the melodies and solos are often immense and moving. But years after first hearing it, it no longer moves me in the same way that Conference of the Birds still does.
I’ve been fortunate to see Holland twice in the last few years, once in Chapel Hill (with Jason Moran on piano, Potter, and Eric Harland on drums) and once in Santa Fe (with Potter, Harland, and Kevin Eubanks, a fusion powerhouse if ever there was one). But both times I found myself wondering what it’d be like to hear Holland with Altschul and Braxton instead (Rivers having unfortunately left us some years back). Until that day comes, I’ll keep pulling Conference of the Birds off the shelf to listen to again and again.