SUMMER RE-UP: Pan-tones

Originally posted 24 September 2006

Sam Rivers
ABC/Impulse : 1975

Amber: SR, tenor sax; Cecil McBee, bass; Norman Connors, drums, percussion.
Mauve: SR, tenor sax; Richard Davis, bass, Warren Smith, vibes (?), drums.
Onyx+Topaz: SR, soprano sax, flute; Arild Andersen, bass; Barry Altschul, drums.

Synesthesia – what colors do you hear? Vladimir Nabokov talked about certain words and letters evoking different tints and shades for him and it’s a rare but documented phenomenon. In the case of Rivers’s Hues, the concept may be a bit forced but the music is unusually vivid.

Hues was part of Sam Rivers’s great run for Impulse in the 1970s, which included such gems as Streams: Live at Montreux, Sizzle, and his absurdly superb large ensemble effort Crystals. The album above was assembled from studio cuts (from early 1971) and three different live dates (1972 and ’73). Although something of a mish-mash, Hues nevertheless showcases Rivers’s proficiency on multiple instruments not to mention his unparalleled musicality. He takes turns on soprano sax, flute, piano, and tenor, throwing in a few wordless whoops for good measure.

“Amber” is from the studio date. Anchored by disco drummer Connors, it balances wonderfully frayed saxophones blurts against a beat that constantly threatens to get funky. In the struggle between chaos and funk, they both win. Or, rather, we do.

“Mauve” is an excerpt from a fall 1972 performance that highlights more subdued tones, with Davis and Smith putting down delicate layers of sound under Rivers’s hypnotic turn on tenor. Exotic and entrancing, this live segment offers something quite different from Rivers’s usual mode.

“Onyx+Topaz,” another live cut, also turns up on the Impulse disc Trio Live under the title “Suite for Molde, Part One.” Trio repackages a number of the tunes from Hues and adds others from contemporaneous live dates. It’s also out of print, but was fairly recently available on CD. “Onyx+Topaz” is a real corker, showing off Rivers’s burning lines on both soprano sax and flute, as well as offering yet another wonderful Rivers-Altschul collaboration.

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This may be something of a refrain here at D:O, but it’s somewhat amazing to us that Rivers is not better known, if not more celebrated. He’s been an important mover in jazz for more than four decades.

In the 1960s, his solo work stretched the Blue Note post-bop envelope. He had a brief but electrifying stint with Miles Davis. And he helped impart legitimacy and gravitas to Tony Williams’ first dates as a leader. During the 1970s, he was the Impulse standard bearer, while also establishing Studio RivBea as a loft jazz lodestar. Into the 1980s he was busy cultivating the wildflower talent of the next generation. Rivers retook centerstage in 1990s with a big band and major label deal, as well as a brief stint with Jason Moran (imparting legitimacy and gravitas to Black Stars).

Rivers continues to do stellar work to this day. His WARM quartet with Roscoe Mitchell blew the roof off the Vision Fest in 2005. It was the most complex, radical, and impassioned music of the entire festival, both compositionally dense and filled with fire-breathing solos. His trio performance there in 2006 was similarly galvanizing, showcasing Rivers’ more lyrical side, and highlighting yet again his group’s versatility.

Sam Rivers is one of those musicians who will cast a longer and longer shadow on jazz as time passes. These tunes reflect his incandescent talent. Hues, streams, sizzle, crystals – these are rather weak attempts to categorize Rivers music in a word. When it’s clear one thousand wouldn’t begin to cover it.

Buy Crystals here, or wherever you find great music.

Visit the astonishingly complete Rivers sessionography assembled by Rick Lopez, which was helpful in preparing this post.

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