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Sam Rivers: Contrasts

John Kelman By

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In a significant discography now approaching forty titles as a leader across five decades, Contrasts stands out as the only recording that left-of-center saxophonist/flautist Sam Rivers led for ECM. Originally released in 1980 on vinyl and previously unavailable on CD, it is finally seeing the light of day again as part of the label's Re:solutions series—and in three formats, no less: CD, four for the first time and one only available previously for a limited time in Japan; high resolution digital download for the first time; and vinyl, once again. It's about time.

Rivers made his ECM debut on Dave Holland's classic 1973 ECM recording, Conference of the Birds. In the years between these two recordings, the pair continued to work together in a number of formats, most notably as the duo responsible for Sam Rivers/Dave Holland Vol. 1 (I.A.I., 1976) and Vol. 2 (I.A.I., 1977), and in a trio with drummer Barry Altschul on Sizzle (Impulse!, 1976) and Paragon (Fluid, 1977). But it was with Waves (Tomato, 1979), that the seeds of Contrasts were born, as Rivers and Holland were joined by drummer/percussionist Thurman Barker, a similarly avant-reaching member of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

But while the similarly chord-less Waves teamed Rivers with Joe Daley, an outstanding tubaist who would go onto record with everyone from Carla Bley to Dave Douglas, Contrasts' quartet is rounded out with trombonist George Lewis, another AACMer. Rivers takes a more eclectic approach that, when it swings, swings hard: "Zip" features a particularly staggering drum solo that raises the question as to why Barker's not better known, while "Lines" is a stellar piece of heated free bop held down by the unshakable Holland, who— while allowing Barker greater freedom to move freely (and effortlessly) between time and texture—still manages to take a break from anchoring the tune to deliver a mind-blowing solo that combines rapid-fire linear virtuosity with the occasional punctuating double stops.

The real freedom of Contrasts—its totally translucent soundstage making it the best sounding album of Rivers' career—is that it allows Rivers the latitude to do anything, go anywhere. Beyond the two swing tunes, the darker, more avant-tinged "Solace" features Barker on marimba, Holland con arco and the combined force of Rivers and Lewis, who shift restlessly between out-of-the-ether melodies and extended techniques—in particularly the growling, blatting and overall timbre-rich trombonist. The flute-driven "Verve" grooves amiably, before a series of solos lead to a breakdown in time, with Lewis and Rivers once again orbiting around each other, while "Dazzle" is the set's most incendiary track, taken at a fiery pace and setting the context for Rivers' most impressive solo, weaving visceral screams and dramatic ululations with deft, unfettered yet still thematic constructs.

A rediscovered classic, the re-release of Contrasts in multiple formats brings attention to a largely overlooked album that stands as a singular entry in the now-deceased Rivers' catalog. Demonstrating that true freedom means everything is permitted, its eclectic program also demonstrates just how much better a great recording can be, when given ECM's attention to sound and detail.

Track Listing: Circles; Zip; Solace; Verve; Dazzle; Images; Lines.

Personnel: Sam Rivers: soprano and tenor saxophones, flute; George Lewis: trombone; Dave Holland: double bass; Thurman Barker: drums, marimba.

Title: Contrasts | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: ECM Records

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