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Sam Rivers: Contrasts

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As an icon of creative endeavors, the ECM label is world renown for its releases by such heavyweights as Dave Holland, Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett, and Jack DeJohnette, to name just a few. Probably much less acknowledged however are those little trinkets of musical pleasure that have fallen through the cracks over the years, several of which also happen to be unavailable on compact disc. In this latter category belongs one of the last major label releases that saxophonist Sam Rivers produced prior to his brief tenure with BMG in the late ‘90s. In a trio of dates ECM produced that featured major American jazz saxophonists (the other two albums being George Adams’ Sound Suggestions and Dewey Redman’s The Struggle Continues ), 1979’s Contrasts serves as a cornerstone among Rivers’ many works as well as a key item from the ECM catalog.

The antithesis of the label’s general inclination towards pastel shades, Rivers and crew paint in wide strokes of bold colors with an avant-garde flair very much in evidence. Rivers and trombonist George Lewis often engage in collective banter, tossing phrases back and forth at one another. Bassist Dave Holland not only holds down the bottom end but also contributes to the melodic fold by bowing his own lines that intertwine with the lead voices. Rendered across the full stereo spread by engineer Martin Wieland, drummer Thurman Barker becomes a full participant capable of thematic and melodic variants that go far beyond the role of just time keeping.

All seven of the pieces heard here are Rivers originals and each one boasts a one-word title that sums up the mood of performance. “Circles” opens up with some free collective improvisation, although things simmer on a low heat with Barker sticking to brushes throughout. A number like “Zip” recalls Rivers’ Blue Note years with its forceful swing, the tenor man getting into his own version of the archetypical “sheets of sound” approach. Somewhat more melancholy, “Solace” finds Barker switching to marimba, with Rivers’ soprano and Lewis’ trombone floating over an ethereal landscape. As an added treat, “Verve” offers a taste of Rivers on flute with a hybrid boogaloo beat that beams with sunny hues.

Although the overwhelming majority of items from their expansive catalog remain in print, ECM still has several items that have yet to make it to compact disc with Contrasts being at the top of this reviewer’s list. Coming off his series of remarkable, if erratic Impulse recordings from the ‘70s, this ECM date serves as a summation of Rivers’ virtues up to that point in time.

Track Listing: 1. Circles (Rivers)—4:10, 2. Zip (Rivers)—4:42, 3. Solace (Rivers)—6:54, 4. Verve (Rivers)—7:09, 5. Dazzle (Rivers)—9:12, 6. Images (Rivers)—3:48, 7. Lines (Rivers)—7:15.

Personnel: Dave Holland—Bass, George Lewis—Trombone, Sam Rivers—Flute, Sax (Soprano), Sax (Tenor), Thurman Barker—Drums, Marimba, George Leroy Lewis—Trombone.

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