One of the most surprising recordings of the year, Configuration finds venerable multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers presiding over a very unlikely contingent of European musicians: Recyclers guitarist Noel Akchote, Mujician bassist Paul Rogers, pianist Tony Hymas, and drummer Jacques Thollot. Additionally, this isn't an album comprised solely of extended, free improvisations; there is a wide array of compositions included in the program, and not all are by Rivers.
Listeners putting on this album expecting a full-throttle blow-out from the outset will be set back on their heels by the opener, a tender trio reading of Rivers' classic ballad "Beatrice," which features his breathy tenor gliding over Hymas and Akchote's subdued comping. The same listeners may then find themselves staring at the ceiling, knocked down by Akchote's loping "Cheshire Hotel." It's not that the piece sounds like the product of a Vulcan mind meld between a young Bill Frisell and a younger Keith Jarrett that is shocking, but that it works for Rivers.
The program then "settles" into outside playing with a strong flute/bass duet (Rogers is one of the planet's most undervalued bassists) and the title cut, a quintet piece that steadily gathers steam from fragmentary beginnings, coalescing around Rivers' tenor. But just when it seems safe to let down your avant guard, Rivers and Hymas serve up the pianist's "Jennifer," a bucolic rhapsody leavened by Rivers' world-weathered tenor lines.
After a trio of striking improvised duets (tenor/bass, flute/guitar, soprano/guitar) and the avant groove of Rogers' "Rififi," Rivers concludes the program with a couple of tunes- yes, tunes-sandwiching a smoldering rubato duet with Hymas. Featuring the trio of Rivers, Hymas, and Akchote, both "Ripples" and "Nightfall" are gently swinging mid-tempo vehicles, timely reminders that Rivers mastered the mainstream long before he explored uncharted waters.