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Sam Rivers: Culmination

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In jazz, who really moves the music forward, the soloist or the composer? With his latest Rivbea All-Star Orchestra release, Sam Rivers reminds us that they both do.

Culmination was recorded at the same 1998 session that resulted in last year’s Grammy-nominated Inspiration. Saxophonist Steve Coleman produced this outing also, and it, too, is likely to end up on many year-end best-of lists.

Long, challenging pieces, written over the last three decades, were compressed into shorter forms for the sake of the recording. They reveal different aspects of Rivers’ compositional approach, from the swinging atonality of “Neptune” to the funky layered riffs of “Bubbles” and “Riffin.” One piece, “Ripples,” is written in a traditional 32-bar jazz ballad form. It wouldn’t sound out of place in a lounge-as long as the lounge was inside a gigantic tilt-a-whirl.

Though many of the densely textured pieces have similar tempos and dynamics, they are all rhythmically and harmonically adventurous. “Spectrum,” with its contrapuntal lines, cascading horn parts and simultaneous solos, is particularly effective. The rhythm section, with its thumb-popping electric bass and fatback drums (no piano or guitar!), gives everything a bubbling, avant-dance groove that makes the most complex arrangements accessible.

Just about everyone in this 16-piece orchestra is a leader, so it’s no surprise that Rivers is generous with the solo space. After all, how many big bands can boast a sax section that includes Rivers, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Chico Freeman, Gary Thomas and Hamiet Bluiett? Of course, Rivers, too, is still capable of virtuosic displays. His solo on “Bubbles,” for example, is a lesson in playing rhythmically inside and harmonically outside at the same time.

It’s clear that, at age 77, Sam Rivers shows no signs of slowing down.