Sunday, September 9, 2012

Magical Trio Music

The multi-instrumentalist, composer, and educator Sam Rivers would have turned 89 on September 25th of this year.  He passed in 2011 on the day after Christmas, leaving behind a legacy of music that spanned nearly 6 decades.  His Blue Note recordings from the 1960s still sound contemporary;, in fact, none of his music sounds dated. He was active well onto his 80s, leading a big band as well as a trio.

Pi Records is set to issue (on Sam Rivers' birthday no less) "Reunion: Live in New York", a 2-CD concert recording from May of 2007 that was the culmination of week-long festival held in New York City by radio station WKCR.  Rivers, who during the course of the 2 sets (approximately 90 minutes), plays soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano and flute.  He is reunited with the rhythm section of Dave Holland (bass) and Barry Altschul (drums), an aggregation that had not worked together on a regular since the late 1970s.  On this night, Rivers, Holland and Altschul stepped out onto the stage and started to play; there was no sheet music, no planning beforehand, no "greatest hits" package, just 2 sets of improvised music.

When one writes "improvised music", it is often translated as "free music" or, sadly, "noise with no direction." Yes, it is "free" in that the musicians' creativity determines the directions but the sounds this Trio makes is not pure noise; in fact, it's a conversation of the highest order.  River stepped on stage knowing that Holland and Altschul would push him to heights of creativity (and vice versa.)  Holland moves this music in various directions, often riding alongside the flowing (and bouncing) beat of the drummer. His bow work is pristine and the melodic counterpoint he creates through the program is quite impressive. When he locks into the drummer's groove, the music accelerates and leaves the ground.  For his part, Altschul drives this music with abandon but not fury. His cymbal work is smart, his snare has a snap that reverberates and one can hear a "dancing" quality in his solos that is reminiscent, but not a slavish reproduction, of the work of the late Ed Blackwell.

Mr. Rivers opens the first set on tenor sax moving to soprano and flute for the second half of the set.  The mesmerizing beat and booming bass lines on the final piece underscore the soprano and flute, reminding this listener of Holland's classic "Conference of the Birds", his 1972 ECM Lp.

The second set (CD 2) opens with a powerful bass solo, then adds Altschul's fine brush work beneath Mr. Rivers' exciting flute lines.  His dialogue with the drummer gives way to Altschul creating melodic phrases on the floor toms while Holland creates an arco drone at the 7 minute mark.  The flutist returns with a short, unaccompanied, solo, his lovely breathy tones on lines that swing and move in unexpected directions.  After a short bass solo, the flute gives way to tenor saxophone.  The trance-like swing of the rhythm section in the final moments of the second track is mesmerizing.

The fiery interplay of tenor sax with the bass and drums in the middle section of the final track hearkens back to but does not repeat the opening moments of the first set.  One should listen to this music in its entirety; it's easier to follow the flow if you (literally) just go with it.  "Reunion" is joyous music that can't help but remind one just how fine and creative a person Sam Rivers was.  Dave Holland and Barry Altschul carry on in his tradition, one that began with the birth of jazz and shows no signs of disappearing.

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