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 availabe 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. (Here’s how the Daytona Beach News-Journal recently answered the question, Why haven’t I heard of Sam Rivers?) He has 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.

Category Sam Rivers

11 Responses to Pan-tones

  1. wow this is really wonderful stuff. pretty varied, too. seems like rivers was really on a roll in the 70s.

    i’ve always wanted to check out some of his big band records from the past decade or so. anyone out there have any recommendations?

    thanx again.

  2. Hey– great stuff, thanks. I wonder if Rivers falls between the cracks in some ways and that contributes to his not being better known. On the one hand, his concept seems highly abstract and “airy,” intellectual and intricate, structural and angular. But his work always strikes me as also highly lyrical, oddly. So he’s not full bore “classical” nor “romantic” and maybe this makes it harder for listeners to stay close.

    Saw him last year at The Outpost in Albuquerque, a stunning show.


  3. While I think “Streams” is one of the great under-recognized albums from the 70s and enjoy most of Rivers’ work from that period, I’ve never, ever understood the apparently huge appeal of “Crystals”. ‘Strident’ is the term that most often surfaces. When it came out on disc a few years ago and was the recipient of a new round of hosannas, I dusted off my LP for a re-listen and, no dice, still felt the same. My loss, perhaps.

    Unmentioned above are the two gorgeous duo albums he did in ’76 with Dave Holland for Paul Bley’s IAI label.

  4. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Brian, agree with you about Streams. Don’t think I hear stridency in Crystals, but I’m due for another listen. As for the Holland duos, I’m only aware of them by reputation. Can easily imagine the beauty therein, though.

  5. Hey, I have a request for somebody who’d be good to blog. How ’bout Joe Farrell?

  6. Inspired me to dig out my vinyl – a timely reminder as the big band, and the man himself, were astonishing when they played in London last year. Rivers must be the hippest octagenarian on the planet.

  7. The second half of the ’70 saw Rivers all over Europe all the time; he enjoyed a great following in Italy, drawing huge crowds, something unthinkable of today! Then in the very early ’80 he disappeared to reappear only recently (but I was astonished to see him in the sax section of a not very distinguished Dizzy Gillespie band, around 1987).

    I vividly remember seeing him playing an Italian Communist Party festival, early in 1978 , with Holland, Thurman Barker on drums and Joe Daley on tuba – not sure about this last, I was just a kid. I have rarely witnessed such raw power and magnetism. His records were easily available then and I still have some from those years, including one of IAIs with Holland.

    Going down memory lane to those years: any news of trombonist Joseph Bowie and drummer Charles Bobo Shaw (Human Arts Ensemble)?

  8. The percussionist on “Mauve” was the great Warren Smith, of course, not Wilbur Smith.

  9. Ach! Of course. Taking book hat off, putting dunce hat (that says “jazz” on it) on. Thanks for the fix, boxwalla.

  10. Glad I found this site, Iâ??ve been searching for something like this for awhile now.

  11. SUMMER RE-UP: Pan-tones