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Sam Rivers and the Rivbea All-Star Orchestra: Inspiration

It’s common practice for venerated jazz artists to take a victory lap late in life; Sam Rivers, however, is running a marathon. Pushing 80, Rivers has more energy and stamina than most men half his age. His current work has a more vibrant edge than 99.9% of the music now glutting the market. Inspiration reveals a true original at an autumnal zenith, an artist for whom resting on his laurels is an alien concept.

Rivers’ avant-icon status obscures the fact that his sensibility is pan-stylistic, and that, more often than not, the dense clusters and jarring voicings of his orchestra works are in the service of setting up tangy funk, Latin, and swing grooves for soloists. In this regard, Inspiration is something of a condensed retrospective. The recently penned, Latin-tinged title track is based on “Tanga” by Dizzy Gillespie, who shaped the young Rivers’ sense of modernism in the mid-’40s, and gave the multi-instrumentalist a reentry into bebop via a stint in the trumpeter’s ’90s quintet. The lyricism of the classic “Beatrice” is a reminder that Rivers’ Blue Note legacy is not exclusively one of relentless intensity; the intriguing aspect of this harmonically sophisticated chart is that is was scored in ’68, when the flames of Fire Music were at their hottest. Rivers’ ’70s envelope-pushing at Studio Rivbea is represented by the knotty, aptly titled “Vines,” which has, at its core, a fairly straight-up jam on a single chord. Still, for all its allures, this is undiluted Rivers.

From a soloist’s vantage, Rivers’ music is a considerable challenge, one that is taken up with gusto by a truly impressive aggregation (Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Chico Freeman, Gary Thomas, Hamiet Bluiett, saxes: Ray Anderson, Joseph Bowie, Art Baron, trombones; Ravi Best, James Zoller, Ralph Alessi, Baikida Carroll, trumpets; Joseph Daley, baritone; Bob Stewart, tuba; and Rivers’ trio mates, bassist Doug Mathews and drummer Anthony Cole). As most of these musicians have passed through Rivers’ ensembles or gained career traction via Studio Rivbea gigs, it is gratifying to hear their work at this stage in tandem with Rivers’ own incisive improvisations on flute, soprano, and tenor (unfortunately, he does not play piano on the date).

Originally Published