Sam Rivers

Tenor and soprano sax, other reeds.

Fuchsia Swing Song
Dec. 1964 / Blue Note Connoisseur

This advanced yet accessible album features Rivers (all tenor) with Jaki Byard, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Rivers strikes a great balance between inside and outside tangents; his rough tone puts him in the “new” camp, but the inflections in his phrases are often of traditional heritage. He navigates “Cyclic Episode” (a tune with very attractive chord changes) and the beautiful ballad “Beatrice” with uncommon intelligence, outlining the harmonies as necessary but finding ways to include his abrasive tonal techniques without disrupting the flow of the solos. He’s a shortsighted player who dispatches ideas in quick clips, and he’s very effective at making little bursts of information add up to a larger sum.

The tunes are memorable, like the two aforementioned numbers, the twisted bop of the title track, and “Downstairs Blues Upstairs”, of which we hear four takes, with the master having the magic balance of tempo and intensity. The supporting trio has a nervous energy, thanks to Williams, and a solid ground, thanks to Carter. Jaki Byard is the wrench in the machine, though; he sometimes falls into anachronistic piano figures that summon decades-old connotations in otherwise modern music - a square peg in a round hole. I don’t want to dismiss Byard’s obvious abilities, but his historical enthusiasm occasionally leads him to inappropriate allusions. At other times, he is a fine foil for Rivers’ style, so the quartet works out in the end. The music certainly works out, and it’s perched on a daring edge.

May 1965 / Blue Note Connoisseur

With Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Joe Chambers, each on top of their game. Rivers’ four compositions negotiate a gray area between post-bop and more open forms, thus the perfect cast to bring these ideas alive and have them sit, in hindsight, as one of the touchstones of ‘60s jazz. I hear a lot of structural concern in Rivers’ writing and playing of this time, as opposed to the unchecked expressionism of more notorious free players. Rivers reaches for certain extremes, yet he does so from an earthbound stance. Maybe that’s why it takes a few listens to fully latch onto this album. Kind of like Miles’ quintet albums to come, the advanced content resonates more with every pass.

“Point of Many Returns”: Dangerous hardbop in the head and during Hubbard’s solo; then Hancock and Rivers (on soprano) ride the harmonic swirls elsewhere. “Dance of the Tripedal”: Dark harmonies mesmerize in a waltz Ornette might have written had he been more schooled. Rivers’ tenor solo wobbles in orbit as Hubbard lurks in the background then takes an outbound solo of his own. As Herbie takes over, the rhythm trio goes into a moment of interactive bliss, suspending the chords over a rhythmic chasm. “Euterpe”: A meditative bass figure grounds flute and muted trumpet in a raga-like piece. “Mellifluous Cacophony”: Neither, but close. Jazz Messengers from another planet.

What makes Contours stick in the mind (mine, at least) isn’t necessarily the themes, good as they are, but rather the flashpoints of serendipitous interplay that occur during the improvisations. Hancock is outstanding at the piano, as is Chambers at the drums. The leader plays wonderfully, too. Highly recommended.

Dimensions and Extensions
Mar. 1967 / Blue Note RVG

Rivers loses me a bit here, venturing into hazardous free jazz rather than solving puzzles and erecting structures on the fly. While I love Rivers’ free forming elsewhere (like Tony Williams’ Lifetime, or Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds), I can’t fully get behind these directionless experiments. The compact pieces “Precis” and “Paean” start the album well enough, both with interesting improvisations from the four hornsmen (Rivers, Donald Byrd, James Spaulding, Julian Priester) and alert backing from bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Steve Ellington. Then “Effusive Melange” tips the scales toward an un-mellifluous cacophony that I find hard to endure, let alone appreciate as anything deep. The flute-centric “Involution” is relatively relaxing, but it doesn’t have a strong theme or mood, and Rivers’ trio spotlight (“Afflatus”) wavers obnoxiously. The closing “Helix” I can take or leave, as my interest in the program has already waned. I find Fuchsia Swing Song and Contours more provocative and satisfying than Dimensions and Extensions, although (to borrow a web cliche that I won’t use again) your mileage may vary.

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