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Sam Rivers Trio: Sam Rivers Trio Live (1973)

August 25, 2011

sam rivers trio liveRoll: 6-10-16
Album: Sam Rivers Trio, Sam Rivers Trio Live

At his best multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers is a conduit between modal- and free-jazz. His earlier post-bop records on Blue Note temper the relatively safe, swinging grooves of Lee Morgan or Jackie McLean with a touch of the abrasive, adventurism of Pharoah Sanders at his skronkiest. Later, with albums like Crystals, he’d take things further towards the purely discordant regions of something like Coltrane‘s Ascension.

But here, with these live sessions, he’s perfectly situated at the crossroads between post-bop and the avant-garde. Suitably, it was released on the Impulse! label, home to Coltrane, Sanders and Archie Shepp. In fact—despite that in the liner notes Rivers states he made sure he listened to everyone else so he could do something different and sound wholly original—this is the record of his which sounds the most like Sanders. And a bit like Shepp too. In the third movement of the 34-minute opening track, “Hues of Melanin” (from a Nov. 10, 1973 Yale University concert, which comprises tracks 1-3 on the disc), he approximates the scat-yodel that became a signature for both those artists.

True to his word though, he’s clearly trying to take it somewhere different. It still sounds like a Bedouin mystic speaking-in-tongues, but there’s a more musical quality to Rivers’ take on the technique than Shepp’s craggy ululations. There’s also a greater range of expression throughout the whole suite than the relatively monochromatic feel of Sanders’ and Shepp’s (or his own) records. This could be due to the smaller combo, each player’s performance is afforded the space to properly stretch out and feel at home.

Really, the success of the Yale session has to be given to the stellar “trio”  Barry Altschul on drums with Cecil McBee and Lewis Worrell on basses (if my math is correct, with Rivers, that equals four players. But why quibble?). The band sounds huge. With Rivers switching between sax, flute, piano and vocals, the range of sounds is truly expansive. There’s an interplay between tones and personalities which tends to get buried in the cacophony of a larger band.

Speaking of personalities, in the flute and piano sections, it actually sounds a bit like like Yusef Lateef and Cecil Taylor dropped in, respectively. Which might be the fault in Rivers’ theory of digesting everyone else’s records in order to do something unique. The result seems to have been he became a bit of a mocking bird, at least in this period of his career (he’s still going).

That isn’t ultimately a criticism. Especially not on a record where he’s improving upon what he’s borrowed. “Hues of Melanin” is the best composition Archie Shepp never wrote, the piano on the “Ivory Black” section isn’t cluttered up by the rest of the Cecil Taylor Unit, his flute is more emotive than Lateef’s, and his Coltrane-via-Sanders in the “Violet” section is perfect.

In the end, like all of Rivers’ records, he actually does end up creating something unique out of the encyclopedic knowledge of his contemporary’s styles. And it would be a little disingenuous to say there aren’t signature Sam Rivers riffs all over the place. Like all great jazz combos, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is a record with an abundance of quality parts.

The remaining two tracks on the CD are from an August 1973 concert in Norway. “Suite for Molde pts. 1 &2” have a heavier bop feel and the audio quality isn’t as pristine. The energetic session might not be as rewarding as the Yale concert, but since that’s worth the price of the album alone, this is some sweet, swinging icing on the cake.

It should be noted as well that between the two concerts, this is this only CD release at this time which features material from the criminally unavailable 1973 album Hues (much of Rivers’ back catalogue is infuriatingly out-of-print).

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