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Sam Rivers: Undulation


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Sam Rivers: Undulation
Sam Rivers, who died in 2011, was one of the luminaries of the avant-garde, a Blue Note artist who played not only with Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor, but also Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. He lead his own groups for much of his life but also found time to run one of New York's premier lofts during the 1970s. In cooperation with his estate, NoBusiness Records has been digging into his archives, unearthing exceptional unissued live recordings of which Undulation is the fifth in a projected series of eight.

It presents a quartet captured live in Florence, Italy in May 1981 in a 72-minute program which comprises three selections from the performance, demarcated into thirteen tracks on the basis of the instrumental combinations involved. Like all these sets it comes accompanied by insightful liners which place the music in its historical context and explain its significance.

At this point, with the recession of the early '80s well underway, many of the free jazz coterie were presenting their music in formats which might have wider appeal, featuring electric guitar and bass, and earthy rhythms. While Ornette Coleman's Prime Time was an pioneering and principal mover, it was a course pursued by the likes of Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and many others, including Rivers. He's joined here by guitarist Jerry Byrd and electric bassist Rael-Wesley Grant in a line up completed by drummer Steve Ellington, a veteran of some of his '60s sessions. Only a single record otherwise exists of this unit, Crosscurrent (Blue Marge, 1982) documenting a date from the start of the same tour.

Notwithstanding commercial imperatives, the album begins in uncompromising style as Rivers' muscular tenor explodes in expressive cries, choked screams and overblown multiphonics against swirling bass, drums and guitar. Then in a recurring pattern, Rivers leavens his out there approach with more rhythmically inflected narratives, quickly picked up by the band. Here and elsewhere he enjoys absorbing interplay with Byrd and Grant. A solo spot follows in which he mingles speaking in tongues with more lyrical digressions, before Ellington initiates a funky section as Rivers continues, invoking his blues roots. The whole 21-minute passage contains some of his finest tenor work committed to disc.

Even though Rivers claims the majority of the limelight (there's just over a quarter of an hour of him on piano and flute too, and he's more than competent on both), everyone gets to strut their stuff, with Byrd's nimble display the cream of the crop. What the set achieves is to showcase Rivers' enormous range and prowess in free flowing dialogue. Although largely spontaneous, he does introduce some well practiced licks, if not written material, such as the spry melody he picks out on "Piano section II."

Rivers is an important figure in the history of the music and this valuable release helps fills in some of the blanks in a somewhat neglected mid-career period.

Track Listing

Tenor saxophone section I; Tenor saxophone solo; Tenor saxophone section II; Drum solo; Piano solo; Piano section I; Piano section II; Guitar solo; Flute section I; Flute solo; Flute section II; Bass solo; Flute section III.


Sam Rivers: saxophone, tenor; Jerry Byrd: guitar; Rael-Wesley Byrd: bass, electric; Steve Ellington: drums.

Additional Instrumentation

Sam Rivers: flute, piano.

Album information

Title: Undulation | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: NoBusiness Records

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