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Sam Rivers: Crystals

Even though reedist Sam Rivers is routinely referred to with such superlatives as “great,” “a giant,” “one of the most important,” etc., he still remains underappreciated. The problem is that Rivers has always been his own man to an extent that the jazz press and public haven’t always realized.

Rivers’ early recordings with Miles Davis and subsequent Blue Notes were great but often left one with the sense of a greater power that was being held back, as if we still weren’t hearing the real Rivers. That impression was exploded by the 1974 Impulse release Crystals, on which the listener was faced with an iconoclastic vision of large-group composition that Rivers had been germinating for decades. No longer could he be viewed as another tenorman (albeit with multi-instrumentalist proclivities) aspiring to Coltrane’s vacant throne. Rivers provided liner notes for Crystals that outlined his extraordinarily complex structures, and while this was useful both for sorting out soloists and getting a handle on how things were set up, basic questions about the approach remained. After all, no matter how interesting the contrapuntal, harmonic and rhythmic devices the composer describes may be, it is the way the music unfolds so convincingly that makes it great. And while these descriptions could lead listeners to thinking that Rivers was primarily concerned with importing ideas from 20th-century Europeans, no figure in modern African-American music has been more conscious of his musical heritage than Rivers. His grandfather Marshall Taylor authored an extremely important 19th-century collection of religious songs, and Rivers’ parents were associated with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It would take an exhaustive study to show how many of the very modern touches here are extensions of classic big-band formulas and even gospel singing, but the magic of the music is obvious. It is certainly demanding, dense and difficult at times, but it also surges with the power of a genie released from captivity, swings like mad when it wants to and features great playing by the likes of Paul Jeffrey, Roland Alexander, Ted Daniel, Richards Williams and Charles Greenlee. Rivers himself is in spectacular form throughout this classic recording.

The decades since Crystals have seen Rivers move to Florida while continuing to be an important international presence as leader, soloist and teacher. His participation on Fluid Motion elevates a date under the leadership of trombonist-producer David Manson to really great heights, but in fairness to Manson, the date would probably have been memorable even with a more mortal saxman aboard. To begin with, the compositions tend toward just the kind of thorny contrapuntal creations we might expect from Rivers, and while annotator Steven Loewy finds similarities to Dave Douglas and early George Russell that are certainly plausible, I’m reminded more of Bill Barron’s work. Much of the writing has the edgy feel produced by musical devices that blur the line between tonal and atonal. The harmonizations are deliciously dissonant and the soloing is superb. Not only is Rivers in inspired form, Manson contributes impressively constructed improvisations and the young trumpeter Jonathan Powell is brilliant. At times, listening to Powell makes one think of a young Freddie Hubbard tempered with Lester Bowie’s flair for unpredictable phrasing and melodrama.

At others, he sounds more than a little like Jimmy Owens. He can be quirky and convoluted, but doesn’t mind letting things slow down and develop in obvious ways. At such times ever-sensitive drummer Anthony Cole is quick to underline things, but Cole is just as good at more subtle kinds of interaction. He and bassist Doug Matthews have worked a lot with Rivers in recent years, and they both do a great job creating the ongoing improvised backdrop that is vital for the success of the music.

Fluid Motion serves both as a reminder of the presence of a lion in our midst and as a promise of brilliant things to come from Manson and Powell. But it is the beautiful way that it all comes together that earns my vote for jazz record of the year.

Originally Published