The Elliptical Mambo


Sam Rivers
ECM : 1980

SR, soprano sax, flute; George Lewis, trombone; Dave Holland, bass; Thurman Barker, marimba, drums.

Sam Rivers – with crucial assistance from his wife – helped launch and sustain the essential NYC loft scene of the 1970s.  Studio RivBea and others provided a critical support system for adventurous acoustic jazz during a lean decade for gigs and recording contracts. It’s not entirely overblown to consider these artists as equivalent to the monks who preserved essential culture during the Middle Ages, in the face of some serious marauding. River’s album Contrasts harkens from the tail-end of the Loft Era. 

Rivers made the most of this European opportunity. He assembled a crack quartet that includes longtime collaborators Holland and Barker, and relative newcomer Lewis. Contrasts melds Rivers’ talents for free improv and compositional rigor, offering a program of concise tunes with blazing performances and considerable conceputal oomph. He even manages to avoid being glazed beneath that typical ECM sound.

The elliptical parts of “Circles” swing like hula hoops. The song is a marvel of complex dexerity that still manages to work up a good head of steam, even as the momentum swings back on itself.  Concept: see title. The opening of “Verve” is one of the most achingly gorgeous flute performances Rivers has put his name on. The melodic cloudburst he generates is reminiscent of the title track from Conference of the Birds

Unfortunately, Contrasts didn’t initiate a longterm relationship for Rivers & ECM, one similar to his fruitful tenure at Impulse. But it remains one of the stellar recordings of the early 80s, proof that the unsung Rivers was entering the new decade undimmed. (Though the next significant label recording doesn’t come until almost two years later — 1982’s Colours, for Black Saint.)

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