1964 was an important year for the jazz saxophone. John Coltrane recorded the seminal A Love Supreme and Eric Dolphy made Out to Lunch, a masterpiece of the early jazz avant-garde.
With that in mind, it’s not as surprising as it is unfortunate that saxophonist Sam Rivers’ debut Fuchsia Swing Song doesn’t get much press. Rivers went on to become one of the most original and important saxophone voices after Coltrane, but in 1964, he was virtually unknown and had just finished a very brief stint with Miles Davis.
Rivers is joined here by two members of that band, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. The quartet is completed by Rivers’ old friend Jaki Byard on piano. Though he became known for also playing soprano saxophone and flute, Rivers sticks to his main ax, the tenor, for this album.
Listeners familiar with Rivers’ free jazz work from the '70s or even his later Blue Note recordings might be surprised by the bright swing and conventional harmonies of the title track. Make no mistake though; Rivers’ tonal distortions and elastic sense of time distinguish him as part of the lineage of saxophonists that includes Coltrane, Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, and Archie Shepp, though his resonant and deep tone has always harkened back to earlier players like Chu Berry and Don Byas rather than the Coltrane school that came to dominate jazz.
"Downstairs Blues Upstairs" is the most conventional piece on the album. Rivers is fairly harmonically conservative on this most basic of forms. "Cyclic Episode" is distinguished by an upward harmonic cycle that lends it a restless quality. Rivers’ solo begins subtly with only piano and bass accompaniment. Williams enters and the tenor solo turns heated with a number of unusual devices like trills, held notes, and turns. A highlight of the album comes in Byard’s beautiful accompaniment of a sparse bass solo by Carter. Byard’s own solo is characterized by very clear logic and miniscule variations of the beat.
The unusual form of "Luminous Monolith" includes repeated two-chord vamps mixed in with more conventional dominant-tonic motion. The rhythm section occasionally drops out during Rivers’ solo, leading to some blistering breaks. These same breaks allow Byard to display his knowledge of early piano styles in his solo, touching on fast bebop, shuffle, and complex stride style arpeggios. The graceful ballad "Beatrice," Rivers’ most famous tune, makes its debut here. With Carter and Byard the epitome of understatement, the lovely melody showcases Rivers’ relaxed tone.
Taken as a whole, Rivers’ debut is a strong album that nonetheless only hints at what he proved himself capable of doing. Though the pieces, with the exception of "Beatrice," aren’t among Rivers’ strongest, the forward-looking playing can hardly be faulted. Fuchsia Swing Song makes an ideal introduction to the work of this master.
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