CD Review: Sam Rivers - Contrasts

Sam Rivers - Contrasts
(ECM 374 3508. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

The 1970s are often considered to have been a pretty barren time for jazz. Many of its early practitioners were dead; the youngsters who were to enliven the following decade had not yet emerged, and the surviving be-boppers were getting old. Avant garde jazz was, however, in fine fettle – artistically if not commercially – and, partly by virtue of his performance space and teaching centre, Studio Rivbea, Sam Rivers was one of its leading lights.

At the time of the 1979 recording of Contrasts, Rivers was 56. He engaged three much younger sidemen: English bass player Dave Holland - a decade after his big break with Miles Davis – was 33 and already a respected leader who had employed Rivers on his 1972 masterpiece Conference of the Birds; drummer Thurman Barker - Holland’s junior by just over a year - had experience with people as diverse as Billy Eckstine and Henry Threadgill, and 27-year-old trombonist George Lewis had started to make a name for himself with pianists Anthony Davis and Muhal Richard Abrams. All four men worked with the hugely influential Anthony Braxton during the previous few years.

The opening Circles is as uncompromising as it gets, with stabbing figures and burbles from Lewis, bowed bass, arhythmic drums and frenzied, swirling lines from the leader’s soprano sax. There appears to be no structure whatsoever and it sounds entirely improvised, but who knows? Rivers possessed the rare knack of writing complex music that sounds spontaneous.

Although he was a true multi-instrumentalist, Rivers also uses soprano sax on three of the other six tracks, including Solace and Images which feature Barker's serene marimba. Towards the end of the latter, Rivers changes to flute alongside (uncredited) glockenspiel, which is presumably played by Barker. Both display a looseness that, again, suggests total freedom.

At the start of a piece that threatens to be more conventional, Verve has an attractive, dancing flute-led melody accompanied by a driving bassline and straight-time drumming. After considerable momentum has been built up, the spell is broken by a bass solo, a trombone interlude and a pensive collective episode. The pretty theme is never re-stated.

The highlight of the session is the appropriately-named Dazzle, the longest track at just over nine minutes. A fast, thrilling, dialogue for tenor and drums is suddenly juxtaposed with a line for trombone and bowed bass. Everyone is in inspired voice, and Rivers’ contribution is particularly furious and urgent.

Zip has a great solo by Barker, and at the end, Lines provides another opportunity for Holland to show his adventurousness. These more structured trio compositions (omitting Lewis) pack a real punch and contain breathtaking, no-nonsense playing by Rivers.

Rivers was one of the very greatest jazz musicians and – despite a resurgence of interest in his work during the last 20 years of his life – he remained under-sung until his death in 2011 at the age of 88. He recorded more cohesive and satisfying albums, but Contrasts presents him at the height of his instrumental powers.

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