The great multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers is remarkably underappreciated, perhaps partly because he created some of his greatest work during the period when jazz was at its lowest point of appreciation in the late 1960s and onward.
Crystals was released in 1974 by Impulse!, the so-called label that John Coltrane built, and it is a towering achievement, compositionally and in terms of performance.
On the first point, Rivers was a master at using melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumental interplay, tempo and chord structures in a way that both recognized jazz tradition with a forward-thinking mentality that seems fresh today.
With regard to the second, this was Rivers' first album using orchestral accompaniment and he made the best possible use of a massive number of instrumentalists. But, rather than overcrowd the pieces, the leader's marshaling of his orchestral resources is such that there is a perfect balance of fullness, richness and power that makes the most of his excellent writing.
In the lines, Rivers stated that he wrote the six pieces between 1959 and 1972, with one track "Exultation" being the sole piece from emanating from the earlier period, as "conceived in 1959 and completed in 1964" and he wrote that he often worked on many pieces at a given time, or, rather, spent time on one, put it aside, and then worked on others, before coming back to the first, often many years later.
The rest of the tracks were more recent, from 1967 on, and it is interesting to note that Rivers stated "the compositions on this album were chosen at random. They could have been any one or sections of more than thirty compositions which have been performed in the New York area, by groups of size ranging from sextet to thirty-five musicians."
In fact, Rivers had recently formed his RivBea Orchestra (the second part of the first word being the name of his wife Bea) and was devoting more of his attention to working with large ensembles at a loft in New York.
Significantly, Rivers' notes refer to the many unusual, fluid and dynamic forces at work in this amazing music. In "Tranquility", the tune is "atonal in concept, with 120 bars of written music with an improvised introduction and ending". With "Postlude", the music comprises "a dense constantly changing mass, each instrument with forty or more bars in its statement, each ending at a different place, then repeating—endless repetition of parts with different entrances produces the ever-changing sound of the whole." And, in "Bursts—Orb—Earth Song", there are "other instruments entering at given times, some written, others improvised, creating a continuous acceleration to a peak."
These are some prime examples of the complex and ever-changing nature of the composer working with a large group of musical resources in personnel and instruments, as well as compositional technique, to create a masterpiece.
Among the musicans are multi-instrumentalist Paul Jeffrey, who headed an octet and worked with Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington; trumpeter Ted Daniel, a sideman for Archie Shepp, Sonny Sharrock and Dewey Redman, as well as his own groups; trombonist Charles Greenlee, a frequent player with Shepp; trummpeter Richard Williams, whose background included stints with Oliver Nelson, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Jaki Byard; and drummer Warren Smith, who was in the Gil Evans Orchestra and Max Roach's percussion ensenble M'Boom; and others.
Rivers also thanked a roster of musicians who were on this album and performed other of his works, leading some reviewers to think all of them played on Crystals, though only some did. In any case, it's an impressive list of players.
The 2002 release on disc, in a mimi-LP sleeve, features updated sound to further enhance the experience of a landmark recording. Some day, hopefully, Sam Rivers will get the attention he is due--as a performer on saxophones, flute and piano and as a composer of the highest abilities.