Monday, November 5, 2007

october 07 braxtothon... day five, interlude

the, ahem, "david holland quartet" revisited
date: 30th november 1972

restructures link

conference of the birds is not speaking to me. it seems convinced that if gets played at all (which isn't looking likely) it won't get any sort of fair hearing. apparently i've just got this unshakeable picture in my head now of dave holland as the ultimate sideman, a guy incapable of leading a really hot date - what misha mengelberg says of him in the jazz times blindfold test (various things actually, but specifically that he should be forced to play only as a sideman, banned from leading) seems emblazoned over my image of him. and this for a guy that i was defending less than a year ago; hell, last december i was still doing more than defend him, i was actively looking forward to the 60th birthday gig the bbc were going to broadcast and probably using my left-over interest in dhq to defend chris potter's solo work - hard to imagine my wanting to listen to any chris potter now... or much more than a few mins of dhq for that matter, ALL those tunes are the same fergodsake. and i have a very strong suspicion that yes, even conference is overrated... i always did think that most of the themes sounded a bit twee, just agreed to cough and look the other way for a minute because the solos were so damn hot - now i'm at this stage, and at that stage with mr holland - what are the chances i shall be wearing an ironic grin before the music has even begun?

so when i decide that i will listen to some of it after all, relaxing in a hot bath instead of freezing my arse off at the keyboard, the disc simply refuses to play, spins and misses and makes nasty noises with the laser but will not produce music... perhaps by the time i got the backup out, the grin was wiped off a bit (but probably not). anyway, four tracks is all i could fit in on this occasion - and my attempts to finish off on day five-and-a-half are thwarted again - this time it has a complete snit and won't play on anything within reach *.

and how was it? well... yes, it does sound rather good doesn't it (though a total newcomer would (now) think immediately that it's very dated)... everyone is on top form and the production is of course very clear. yes, and this is indeed the only album on which you can hear mr braxton with mr sam rivers... sorry, can we have a drum roll and take that again - mr sam rivers i tell you... and for that reason, above all, this is generally regarded as a classic. in fact for those of us in the free camp it has even more significance - there are a couple of other chances to hear the two reed masters together (and one of them doesn't involve holland's writing), but because of what happened later on, this album is not so much a quartet recording as a sort of two-headed trio... the bassist and drummer went on to record some great music with braxton, we know that, but it's easy to forget sometimes that they made yet more great music with rivers - indeed, if we're talking fire, they probably peaked with rivers rather than with braxton. rivers' tenor blows a bit hotter here than b's alto, maybe - but not by much, and respected reviews of this album which characterise b's playing as cool and cerebral are (as usual) evidence of laziness, of being halfway through penning the review before even playing the music... the simple truth here is that all the sax solos are really good, and besides the main axes there are flutes on display (both players, quite prettily on title track) and low clarinets (bass for mr sam, c-bass for mr anthony of course), though these latter are only allowed out during the fun-filled "q&a" (parts of which have even been used as link music on bbc2 over the years) and y'know, really, you don't need me to tell you that the playing is extremely good all round. but... is it that interesting? mmmmprobably not. the sound is a bit dated, the themes aren't that strong really - it always seems to me as if b. was just being kind by adding "four winds" to the quartet book (though there's at least one hot hot hot live version with lewis... then again that incarnation of the band could've played "how much is that doggy in the window" and still used it as a launchpad for the moon and beyond) - finally, the one most consipicuous by his absence is the leader, who is his usual prodigiously-gifted self, all over the bass without ever sounded hurried or lost for ideas... yet doesn't really stretch his own limits at all and doesn't even seek the spotlight much, content to let his two genius guests rip the joint apart.

well, there we are... now it really isn't talking to me, i'll be lucky if i can ever play it again now... it is true that i could write a much more generous statement about it, only talking up its many good points and making it sound like the classic most critics say it is... but this is what i have to say about it at the moment. everyone already owns it anyway, cos it's one of those albums, so it's not as if my opinion will ever make any difference :)

* i wasn't really planning to listen to "see-saw" anyway on this occasion. have heard it so many times i can practically play it in my head, even the solos. it is a wicked closer and probably the strongest track, but that's only fitting because it's also the one which is most clearly influenced by b... you will all tell me if you think i'm being unfair about this, right?


artjep said...

maybe it's about time to stop this shit? - artjep

Brent said...


J-Bombay said...

Heya Cent,

So, I have to admit that I actually like this album (COB), although I also have to admit that I probably haven't listened to it in a couple of years. Unfortunately, I have a couple of new things burnin' through my brain right now, so I probably won't get to it for a bit yet. I did listen to most of Duo (with Evan Parker) the other night and was blown away with the imaginative intensity that those two perform with. That might be one of my favs of his, and I can't remember if anybody else mentioned it on your blog or not. That being said, there is so much one could say about ALL of his music (good luck!) that it really is hard to pin it all down to a select number of recordings. Keep it rolling, man!


p.s. Glad you are stoked about the "Hot Lotta" - maybe just an hour break from Brax to listen to it, right? ;)

centrifuge said...

hello all... artjep - that's interesting! was it not you who said this sounded like an exciting initiative? well, sorry if you are disappointed by the way it worked out but no, i shan't be stopping (although i still hope that the blog will expand in due course to be a lot more than just the braxtothon). you don't specify whether your feelings are inspired by outrage over my shabby treatment of conference..., or whether you are simply sick of the sound of my voice - either one is quite feasible, so i cannot be sure ;-)

j - hey, i *actually like it* myself - i just no longer think it's THAT good... and yes, if you haven;t heard it for a while i'd say check it out when you get a chance, make sure your opinion of it isn't due for an update..!

i am about to take that break right now so i'll let you know over at your place :-D

J-Bombay said...

Hey again,

So, I took a break from the other stuff, pulled this one out, stuck it in and listened to it. The album gods gave me an easier time than they gave you (mine played on the first try!), but I have to agree at least to some extent. This album doesn't do it like it used to for me, although I still enjoy it to a large extent overall. The bass almost seems too far out in front of the recording, but you are right about See-Saw, that is quite the closer! I remember really liking the title track back in the day, but I guess I still am a bit of a sucker for that solo bass sound. The album does have quite a few bright points, but some repetitive and almost cliche sounding stuff in there as well. Was it cliche at the time of the recording or has it happened since? I have to admit that I am not quite old enough to remember that kind of stuff... :) Anyways, I am glad I have it in my collection and would probably purchase it again if I didn't have it already. It might be further down the list, but it still is valuable!

Anyways, back to the Ayler box! >:) Now that stuff seriously burns it up. I sure would like to see that recent documentary they did on him. He was such an interesting character, so soft spoken and peaceful during the interviews, and then blamm-o, all unholy hell gets unleashed from the bowels of his horn!


centrifuge said...

i haven't got the ayler box - probably if i don't just buy the fucking thing i will regret it

haven't got all sorts of things, though...

see? it isn't *that* good, is it? :-D but of course i agree, i would buy it again too if i had to, i'm sure (though i'd scout around for a well-loved copy rather than pay ecm prices a second time!) - did you grab complete 71? do you have comp. 6k available for comparison?

centrifuge said...

sorry, that should be 6i not 6k (that's the album opener played as a duet with corea!)

Arcturus said...

stop listening w/ criticbrain & try the heart via the ears - listening w/ someone else's words in head is always a mistake - if this don't move ya, something crucial's been lost - go back to "Go" & start again

is it the last note? hardly - but don't underestimate it's power for a brand-new (this was one of the initial ecm's) but still relatively mainstream label - beauty, passion, technique & concision still count for something

centrifuge said...

and there was i saying to someone the other day that i was surprised no-one had given me a hard time about this...

arcturus, your comment actually looks as if it's directed towards j-b rather than to me (perhaps i am now completely beneath your contempt!) but of course i shall address it anyway :)

i think i am too up-front about my own prejudices to be justifiably accused of listening with "critic brain"... besides, my hysterical ramblings about some of the braxtons are hardly filled with the measured, never-too-excited-about-anything tones professional critics like to assume, now are they?

i DO LIKE conference of the birds

i do


and i am sorry (genuinely) if i have really upset anyone, but apparently the fact that south park is my all-time favourite tv show is relevant here - sacred cows make me deeply uneasy and i can sometimes be a bit tactless about taking them down a bit. in all seriousness, the reason why i let myself print such a review (days later, as opposed to allowing myself to write it in the first place!) is because i really don't think holland is that deep a writer, i think he has a very limited amount to say as a leader and i do think that can be heard in this recording. the calibre of the playing (wonderful - of course) can't obscure this fact for me - not now, where once it might have done, indeed it did... and whilst i appreciate that this *sounds* like a purely critical judgement, i am merely rationalising after the fact what i felt instinctively during the listening, which was that not that much really happens in most of the pieces, there is great playing but the material is not dense or knotty enough to lead anywhere really interesting. i don't think i am being dishonest with myself here.

what moves one person (or even many people) will not necessarily have that effect on everyone... many things that do move me are intolerable on first contact to a lot of listeners

thanks, seriously, for taking the trouble to comment about it... now, i can't resist asking: when was the last time YOU heard it?!

Arcturus said...

Enh, don't mind me (too much:). I was reacting mostly to Mengelberg's silly comment that framed the whole piece - much that's wrong w/ it, but w/out going off on a rant, his conflating composition w/ band leadership doesn't start things off well.

Actually just listened to CotB last August. We picked up a new cartridge after buying new speakers this summer, & a whole bunch of old faves w/ bass came off the shelf - McBee, Sirone, Favors, Haden, Boykins, as well as this one. My own biases are from the opposite spectruum (i.e. from yr 'sacred cow') - CotB was one of the first two acoustic jazz records I bought (the other being Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" after getting from the radio that Bird would be a good place to start) when I was 17 - after reading an interesting sounding review of it (& Rypdal's 1st) in the NYT. So this album was my entrance into a *whole* new world of musical discoveries & enjoyment - right into the AACM & NY loft scenes. It still holds up damned well to my ears - much better than a lot of other things I also enjoyed at the time - & now seems to summarize a certain point in musical history in a very concise way. It perplexed & intrigued for long time. I spent hours trying to disentangle the reeds, figure out who was who - so obvious to the ear now! (& annoyed many in college years, walking around humming its melodies :)

The lyricism is a major attraction for me - as is the structural organization that Braxton would explore more formally shortly in the Arista releases - a 'formal aesthetic problem' with some interesting analogies in some poetry of the time I'd later be occupied with.

"material is not dense or knotty . . ."

neither is Monk nor a whole slew of incredible compositions

"enough to lead anywhere really interesting."

wa'z inn'erestin' varies from each to each, no?

I'd hold the title cut up against "Come Sunday" or "Lonely Woman"

for me, as w/ most any art form, I don't find much elucidation when someone tells me X doesn't 'do' their art the way that someone thinks X should - to be dense or knotty enough, deep enough, whatever . . . certainly not before they've dealt w/ what that work sets out for itself - which CotB does very successfully

Does Holland's susbsequent work have a certain limited range? sure. But doesn't that hold as well for many of the musicians whose work we value?

I guess I've I've come to view this album as kind of summarizing document . . . as well as portent of muc to come.

I also never got over just how fresh, how NEW this sounded - the first AIR album I heard (the Nessa) is like that for me as well.

My apologies if you thought I was "upset" - was just running w/ my own riffs. I hope you realize that I *do* appreciate this obsessive little project of yours. We'd certainly be in a hell of a mess if everything spoke to everyone in the same manner at every time & every place ... eh?

centrifuge said...

arcturus, thanks again (or rather even more!) for taking the time to explicate all that... naturally i now feel like replying so i shall take those points in order i guess:

mengelberg is just very typically dutch in that way - the dutch i've met are often like that, seem brutally candid and tactless in their direct assessments of things and people... there is no rancour in it though (usually)... the thing is i can really understand what he means about the (recent) music being "anti-fun" (which is why i laughed at his blunt and excitable comments without being annoyed by them) - now, i myself get very touchy about defending some musicians so i know what it's like when someone crosses that line and shows overt disrespect (which i probably did)... ANYWAY... misha's case is very different from mine i think, for the simple reason that he has been there and done it; so if he wants to conflate holland's leading with his composing, that's very different from doing that as a critic or listener surely and demands to be taken at least somewhat seriously..?

thanks for sharing your memories... which appear to have come flooding back when you heard the album - but don't you see? not only are you not leaving those memories behind when you listen to it, you are welcoming them in - and why would you not? those sound like very pleasant memories... but in theory i am trying to listen openly and without association, though of course in practice it does not always work out anything like that - and in this case i openly admitted that i was prejudiced before i even got there! i am not about to relate right now how it is that dave holland's "fall from favour" with me sums up perfectly my own shift in thinking over the last twelve months - perhaps i will give it enough serious thought to make a post out of it if i decide it's worth telling! but to get back to what i was saying - the cost of my attempted "deconstructing of my ears" has admittedly been to lose my love for certain cherished recordings; or rather i can still find things to love in them but no longer feel the same way about them as i did - but this is *not* always the case; indeed sometimes it goes the other way (something which i always really liked for sentimental reasons turns out to sound even better than i remembered it).

i also think that (again, to be pragmatic and a little callous) there are much better examples of braxton-holland-altschul+brass or of rivers-holland-altschul than this album... this comes back to what i was saying about how much happens, where it goes... i'll come back to this when i get onto monk, but for now i want to wrap this bit up by saying that not listening with "critic brain" is one thing, expecting a listener to have *your* own head full of memories with which to fill it out may be a bit much ;-)

i did have an early attachment to the album myself - when i was first getting into jazz it was on a short list i carried around with me of "out classics" i needed to buy at some point (the others were jazz advance, machine gun, spiritual unity and sound) - my attachment is nothing like yours though i guess (and was a lot more recent).

some of my favourite bassists - the names that jumped into my head after i read your own list - mingus kowald altena guy dyani hopkins texier dresser grimes and richard davis

at one point not so long ago i would definitely have added holland and peacock to that list... but maybe not these days

i dunno man, maybe in these cases teddy bear is a more appropriate image than sacred cow :) nostalgia has a very powerful effect over responses to art.

of course you are right about what's interesting being a subjective thing

on the other hand - monk not dense or knotty - are you kidding?? monk is about as dense and knotty as you can get (in terms of written themes)... i know his blues pieces are deceptively simple but many of his themes require serious dismantling of the diatonic ear before they can be heard from "inside" ("played twice" being a prime example of this) - and that dismantling in turn opens up vast possibilities to an improviser, almost limitless really because western tonalities are so blown apart in monk's music

finally (i mean... i could go on and on but i'm not going to... just be warned that any further encouragement from you will likely provoke yet more ramblings!) i suppose when i apologised if i'd upset anyone i didn't exactly mean you, rather that your own reaction, and that of artjep, cumulatively made me wonder how dave holland would feel about it if by some bizarre chance he happened to stumble across it, or a friend of his... i do get a bit excitable (as you can see) and sometimes say things i wish i could take back... then again - i've already explained/defended once my decision to run the post and i've just reminded myself again why i did it so... well, i guess i won't be getting a xmas card from dave this year..!

c x

Omar said...

Not that I'm going to change your mind, fuge, but CotB is one of the albums I listen to every week, at least.

Is it as good as people say? Do I care? And "good" for what? Part of being a music lover is not giving a fuck what people think about a recording, but even more what people USED TO think about an album. I don't give a damn what Misha thinks anymore than I do about what Miles thinks, or Diz, or Satch, or Stanley Crouch.

I've heard so much nonsense about Conference of the Birds that I simply ignore it. If you want to laugh, go read any comment at

To the point, I think that your looking for "themes" in the album is quite a misguided effort and not the way to listen to it. The album is quite non-thematic. The "themes" of Steve Reich or Terry Riley are unremarkable in themselves, but that isn't what the music is about. CotB, just like with minimalist music at its best, is about development, not statement.

The title track is one of the only pieces of music in the world that will change my mood and make me feel good about life no matter when I hear it. The way that the short motive from the bass develops into a colloquy between brushes and vibes, flutes and soprano, bow and pluck is for me one of the most beautiful improvised moments on record. Similarly, the way that Q&A proceeds completely for almost 8 minutes without ever even stating its theme, but instead working from the fragments of the theme BACKWARDS always makes me smile.

If you're searching for density, well, that will rule out just about every Art Ensemble of Chicago recording. CotB and indeed most AACM music with the exception of Braxton solo is quite linear. Is that a problem? God, I hope not. I love "incoherent noise" as much as the next person--more, in fact.

The great innovation of Ornette was that he let jazz loose from the need of harmonic density and returned it to melody. This is also his major influence on Braxton who, when he stumbles, returns to the melody for inspiration (quite obvious from listening to his solo on "Four Winds," for instance). Music needn't always be harmonically or rhythmically or structurally dense (as in a Braxton buzz-logic piece).

Don't listen for what something isn't; appreciate it for what it is. Conference of the Birds is one of the most unashamedly modest compromise albums of the free jazz scene, combining as it does a fairly simple exploration of non-thematic structures and simple question-answer musical variation. It's not unlike listening to Lester and Basie "trading fours," only on a different melodic level. It's not meant to be grandiose; it's meant to be NATURAL. Hence the title.

centrifuge said...

omar, thanks to you too for taking the time and trouble to give your thoughts on this... i shan't reply in too much detail as i think i would end up repeating myself - but i have been given things to think about during all of this, and have posted about that now. thanks to all of you.

a couple of things i do want to add: i never said anything about themes really, that was just something i brought up in discussing monk, nothing to do with my assessment of conference... also, you and i are apparently using the term "density" to mean different things, so i shall have a think about that too - perhaps i can find a better way of saying it in future.

more generally, a word of warning to all those who put themselves on the line by sharing their personal treasures - others will not see these things they way you do, and you may feel a little "trampled" or otherwise violated as a result... in this instance two people have very significant personal associations with conference..., and i'm sure they are not the only ones, but they both seem to expect others to hear the same magic as they do, indeed they appear to demand it. i think it's important to point out that much of the magic is *not inherent in the music* - you are bringing much of yourselves to each listening. there is nothing wrong with this at all, but you simply cannot expect other listeners to hear the album the same way when they do not have your own store of associations and memories.

Omar said...

I will disagree with your spin on "reader-response" theory, or in this case, "listener-response." Saying that people bring themselves to a piece of art is obvious; implying that what they bring to it somehow pre-determines their response is a bit much. The assumption you appear to make is that all of this is value judgment, which I happen not to accept. Indeed, once upon a time, when people gave a shit about "criticism," the very point was to DELAY judgment as long as possible. Martin Williams was very good about this (read his writings about late period Coltrane, for instance).

The problem with much music writing and listening is that it is, essentially, baseless. Any idiot can listen to Balinese gamelan and say, "I don't like it," or "I like it." But then, who cares? Does that listener understand that the piece is built around a clock-like structure in which the big gong represents 12 o' clock? Does that person even have the ability to count in a rhythm that isn't three bars of four? Can that person hear the variety of sounds and how they combine? Isn't it possible that people accept or dismiss music because they--horrors!--don't UNDERSTAND it? And isn't it possible that if they might--god forbid!--change their minds? Surely this isn't some unfounded notion?

Somewhere, somehow it should be more interesting to talk about something other than like/dislike/fucking rocks, dude. How does it fucking rock? What about it is it that fucking rocks? What is the meaning of fucking rocks? Etc. The important thing here, for me, is just to ensure that things are heard fairly; after that, your judgment is your problem. But even then, judgment changes with an increase of knowledge--at least, it should...

I don't, in fact, have a personal attachment to the album Conference of the Birds. In fact, the first time I heard it, I didn't have the faintest idea what was going on. I had to sit down and write it out, play along with it, play parts of it back and hum the melody fragment while the soloists played, etc. I gave it a fair chance, and once I actually figured out what the hell they were doing I grew to appreciate it. This isn't nostalgia, anymore than cracking a Wallace Stevens poem is. It's just diligent respect. There are other albums that I have given the same treatment yet still can't stand: Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother, for instance, or any given Ahmad Jamal album. No one's likely to change my mind about them, but I'm always willing to listen again with new ears.

The problem with turning everything "subjective" is that it reduces meaningful conversation to pure accident. Obviously we human beings do have some common ground for discussion that is not merely subjective, otherwise you wouldn't understand the words I'm typing or the sounds out of your neighbor's mouth. It shouldn't be impossible, then, to go beyond surface subjectivity into something, I don't know, more meaningful in general. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't bother writing anything. Neither, I think, would you.

At any rate, keep on writing.

centrifuge said...

omar, i am not at all sure *why* you want me to keep on writing when you so clearly dislike much of what i have to say. (and that - give or take a few overexcitable, retractable things as previously suggested - really is what i have to say.) also: if you really think that all i am doing is saying "wow, this is great" and "argh, this isn't" then i don't understand why you're bothering to read me at all. (then again i am faintly amazed that ANYONE is reading at all ...! it's not as if we are offering free music or anything)

when you say this:

"Saying that people bring themselves to a piece of art is obvious; implying that what they bring to it somehow pre-determines their response is a bit much"

- i don't understand how you can make even attempt to make that distinction. for me the one follows very naturally from the other, and i wasn't implying; i hope i made my view fairly clear. indeed i disagree with almost everything you say over those three paras or so..! if you think that an uninformed, but honest, evaluation of a piece of music is worthless then i especially strongly disagree with that. i don't mind that you clearly suggest i know less than you and am a "worse" listener than you (i am secure enough in myself to be neither overly flattered nor overly wounded by others' assessments of me), but i do make a point of not listening much to unsolicited advice, particularly when it takes the form "you should..."

this was my honest opinion (with fresh ears) of the record at that time. apparently we disagree as to its merits. if you need to think i must be an idiot to say that... that's fine. please remember that i never claimed to be any sort of expert though, indeed i have claimed the very reverse on several occasions..! i'm not going to repeat it every single time i post, like a nervous tic ;-)

Mars Will Send No More said...

The title track on conference of the birds, with its composed bassline and two interweaving melodic themes, is really a wonderful composition. When I play it, though, I slow it way down. It seems that all the minor beauty gets lost in the bouncy tempo. Four Winds is another solid and challenging composition with its shifting time signatures and interesting theme. Again, maybe the tempo is too rushed.

You've probably done enough Holland bashing here. He never claimed to be the world's greatest leader and you've made it clear that you don't think he is. Having a bassist with half his chops is a blessing. And his solo album "Life Cycle" is simply stunning.

Give the guy a break. Braxton's compositions don't make a whole lot of sense in any traditional way and they aren't very pretty. Completely abstract avant-garde stuff based on his own concepts. You find a bassist they make sense to, you're fortunate indeed. Reading this as a musician, I don't find a lot of analysis of his theoretical approach that would make the his recordings any more clear.

centrifuge said...

mars..., thanks for taking the trouble to comment here.

i do understand why some people think i've indulged in "holland-bashing", but that's not what it's about. it's not totally clear from your comment whether you have read more widely on the blog or whether this is the only post you perused (you say "reading this" but that could easily refer to the one post); if you have looked around a bit further you will know that my interest here is, overwhelmingly, the music of anthony braxton as opposed to modern free jazz in general - hence with regard to holland, my concern is mainly the extent to which he was (or wasn't) suited to *braxton's music* specifically. bassists who understood b's music? that's easy enough: john lindberg, mark dresser, joe fonda, chris dahlgren and carl testa have all got to grips with it very thoroughly. j-f jenny-clark apparently did a good job too, back in 1973 (an unrecorded band). those are the "mainstays", but - as you may or may not know - b. has actually got something of a tradition of recording albums of duets with bassists so there are plenty more names which could be added to the list - check the discog for further examples. in any case, i've dealt with the "holland question" MUCH more fully in my quartet autopsy post: my history with dave holland as a listener, when and why my views changed, etc etc.

i have no formal training in music (past some very basic theory/ grade one piano at school), so of course my theoretical analysis is going to be quite limited. nevertheless, i have been told on numerous occasions that some of the posts here *have* helped people access b's music or understand it better. at one time or another at least two internationally-reputed composer/musicians have been regular readers - then of course there is b. himself, who remains a fan. (he, incidentally, said in a comment elsewhere on this blog that he considers this article, incomplete and irreverent as it is, to be the best review of this album he has ever read...) the good opinions of these people are, like mine and yours, just opinions; but i'm sure you can appreciate that i give more weight to b's than i do those of most others.

i'm not going to say any more here about *conference*. you obviously like it (and rate it) better than i do... but then by the sound of it (to judge from the comments in your third para above) you have a rather more mainstream taste in music than i do anyway: i certainly don't require music to be "pretty", or indeed traditional - although (fwiw) braxton *has* written themes which fit both descriptions. still, you can rest assured of one thing: since i have now finished dealing with the period in which holland was a member of the quartet, there is not likely to be any more "bashing" of him on this blog..! this article was, of course, written more than three years ago...