Although he's been a victim of those stylistic ins and outs since he first hit the national scene as a member of the Miles Davis quintet in the mid-'60s, multi- instrumentalist Sam Rivers seems to be enjoying a renewed popularity thanks in part to his 1999 Grammy-nominated RCA release Inspiration. His first recording for a major label in some time, it will be followed-up by a second collection of his works, Culmination, due sometime in May. Residing now in Florida, Rivers still remains the visionary eccentric whose 50-plus-year career contains many wonderful artifacts, not the least of which being his classic Blue Note sides. Reissued by Mosaic Records in 1996, each album is a perfect package boasting many surprises. Keeping in mind the Rivers revival, it seems like an apropos moment to look back at these early career highlights which are still available through Mosaic.
This reviewer's first exposure to Sam Rivers' iconoclastic style came many years ago through listening to Tony Williams' Spring album and Miles Davis' Live in Tokyo. On the basis of these recordings alone, a search ensued for more vinyl, only to be halted by the glaring unavailability of his highly recommended Blue Notes, which were at the time long out-of-print and almost impossible to find in the used bins. It is with much satisfaction then that Mosaic's treatment of this material on a three-disc boxed set rectifies what was a dismal situation.
Laying the goods out on the table at the start, this set contains the original albums Fuschia Swing Song, Contours, A New Conception, and Dimensions & Extensions. For sheer titillation, nothing quite packs the punch of Fuschia Swing Song which features a stellar quartet with the likes of Jaki Byard (a Boston resident at the time, like Rivers), Ron Carter, and Tony Williams (who had worked with Rivers in Boston while still in his early teens). The three alternates of "Downstairs Blues Upstairs" give a good idea of how creative this group was, each take unique and substantial in itself. A marvel at straddling that thin line between the mainstream and avant-garde camps, Rivers' debut is as strong a maiden voyage as anything else in the jazz cannon of the '50s and '60s.
Contours also has a lot to recommend it, with Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Carter, and Joe Chambers making up an all-star cast. Each piece tells a story (check out the titles too, such as "Point of Many Returns" and "Mellifluous Cacophony') with an unfolding logic that gives all the soloists a chance to shine, yet without degenerating into the chaos often associated with the "free music" of the period.
That ability to stay artistic and still communicate with the audience is what makes A New Conception such a pithy example of what Rivers is all about. With tenor, soprano sax, and flute in hand, he performs a resourceful set of standards and leaves a new stamp on them without altering their original intent dramatically. Pianist Hal Galper makes a strong showing here, as does drummer Steve Ellington, who would later go on to play a role in Dave Holland's '80s quintet.
The final set of the package, Dimensions and Extensions, was never issued following completion, only coming out some ten years later. This 1967 date drops the piano for the first time in favor of an expanded front line, featuring trumpeter Donald Byrd, James Spaulding on alto and flute, and Julian Priester on trombone. The original compositions are dense and knotty, full of the kind of complex interaction that would later see fruition in Rivers' work for Impulse. Some may find this session the least accessible of the three, yet repeated exposure holds its own rewards.
As with all Mosaic reissues, the production values are high, with excellent sound and a wonderful booklet including session photos by Frank Wolff and commentary by the New York Time's Robert Palmer. Available in limited quantities and solely through mail-order, you can reach Mosaic at 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Connecticut, 06902, (203) 327-7111. In cyberspace go to www.mosaicrecords.com.Collective