It was almost a year ago, at the end of 2011, that the underrecognized Sam Rivers died at the age of 88. A multi-instrumentalist, who played tenor and soprano saxopones, flute and piano, Rivers came up in the jazz ranks in Boston, but remained a little-known figure elsewhere until his former sideman, the teenage drum phenom Tony Williams, recruited him to join the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, when Rivers was already 40.
While Rivers' tenure with Davis was short, because his playing just was too free for the leader's tastes, it is definitely worth hearing the long-delayed release Miles in Tokyo, which demonstrates just how inventive and distinctive Rivers' sound was.
After that brief period with Davis, though, Rivers was signed to Blue Note Records and delivered some interesting, if not particularly high selling, albums during the mid-1960s. After another period of obscurity, the Impulse! label signed him in 1973 and a couple of fascinating live albums were released, including Streams, which was this blogger's introduction to this amazing performer some twenty years ago.
However, the Trio Live album, while somewhat similar in structure of the group and arrangement of the pieces, is just a bit better.
The first three pieces, a suite called "Hues of Melanin," present 44 minutes of perfomance at Yale University in November 1973 and teamed Rivers with the supple and creative Cecil McBee on bass and the polyrhythmic and vigorous drumming of Barry Altschul. McBee was also outstanding on Streams, which also featured future disco-era hit maker Norman Connors on the traps. While some suggest that Connors was not suited for Rivers' style, and this may be true, Altschul did seems a better fit.
The rhythm section does do a great job creating an accompaniment that holds up to Rivers' prodigious playing. It's one thing to be a master of a chosen instrument, but Rivers was spectacular on three. His tenor playing was truly his own, not sounding like any of the masters before him, and his navigation from the lower to the higher ranges is impeccable, though on Trio Live, he only played this instrument on one five-plus minute section of this concert.
In the 34-minute first section, he plays expansive on both soprano sax and flute and, on the former, he displays a stamina, clarity and expressiveness that would give such better-known masters as Steve Lacy and John Coltrane a run for their money. His flute playing is also excellent and it is on this instrument that he tended, in these extremely free trio performances (the only type, he said, where he felt he could be truly free) to engage in a stream-of-consciousness series of yelps, screams, and other forms of vocalizing that might turn some listeners off, though it strikes this listener as a joyful reaction to the freedom he and his bandmates were enjoying.
While there is no comparing him to any of the greats, his piano section, comprising just over four minutes, finds him playing quite well, with flowing, graceful lines that cascade and flow easily and attractively.
The last two pieces are called "Suite for Molde" and take in just under 20 minutes of a show at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway in August 1973 with Arild Anderson playing bass. Anderson plays well and works smoothly with Rivers and Altschul, with his bowed work on the second part meshing nicely with that of Rivers, though he doesn't have the strength and elasticity of McBee (but, then, few bassists did.) This work has over half the time, denoted as part two, devoted to Rivers playing tenor and he is simply awesome here, ranging rapidly and mightily on this highly expressive and emotive instrument.
But, Rivers' work on the first part with the subtitle "Onyx" used for the soprano sax portion and "Topaz" for the flute section. It would be interesting to know just what the bandleader felt distinguished each by the names of the precious metals, while perhaps the denotation of "Ivory Black" for the piano section of "Hues for Melanin" seems obvious, while the term "Violet" for the tenor portion of that Yale performance might reflect something visceral and striking?
Those terms would aptly describe the entire recording and it is interesting to read Rivers' comments from the original 1978 liner notes: "You can come out here and be an intuitive musician and be really happening, but your dreams and visions won't last forever. If you don't get into the books and get this technical thing together while your intuitive things is happening, it's over."
This could be interpreted to mean that the spiritual vibe that animated much free jazz in the 1960s and early 1970s was driven more by the former quality, which has its virtues, but that the technical ability developed through much hard work and practice can take that intuitiveness and give it something more solid and substantial. Conversely, technical talent alone, with the emotive power of intuitive improvisation, can come across as cold. This might be an apt way to distinguish craftsmanship (technics) with artistry (intuitiveness), provided that the exceptional artist has both.
That, the great Sam Rivers had in overflowing abundance on these performances.