Sam Rivers Quintet: Zenith

John Sharpe By

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Concertgoers must have been forced back in their seats by the intensity of Sam Rivers opening foray at the 1977 Berlin Jazztage Festival. After an annunciatory tenor saxophone burst, he goes for the jugular with fierce vocalized overblowing atop a churning four piece rhythm section. But if that sounds forbidding, then like the audience, listeners to this historic recording, released as the second installment of NoBusiness Records' estimable Sam Rivers Archive Project, following Emanation (2019), should be enthralled by the freewheeling grooves and moods which enliven the fifty-three minute set.

By this point in his career Rivers had become a master storyteller, able to sustain interest throughout the long form improvisations he increasingly specialized in live. He does that in part by switching between his four main instruments: soprano and tenor saxophones, flute and piano. Another important factor is the quality of his sidemen. This quintet included his most celebrated accompanists, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul, augmented by tubaist Joe Daley and second drummer Charlie Persip. Happily the production renders all that bottom end crystal clear, and even separates the drummers into different channels (although it doesn't identify which is which).

On tenor, probably the most potent axe in his arsenal, Rivers spews out lines at a prodigious pace, with a wiry tough sound which makes judicious use of expressive distortion. After that powerful start, comes an inevitable lull where he extemporizes melodic figures to help launch a series of further snarling peaks and cooling troughs. His arc is similarly compelling on flute, although with his control of light and shade more limited, he makes greater use of vocal cries and yells. He spends some thirty-six minutes of the performance on these two instruments, with much shorter sections for soprano saxophone as well as piano, where he recalls the energy and striking accents of his onetime employer Cecil Taylor.

Holland is elegantly poised between counterpoint and pulse, inserting lyrical phrases when the opportunity presents. Daley frequently acts as a second horn, offering a liquid moaning in the tuba's upper reaches which shadows the leader's contours. There's a lovely almost chamber passage when Holland on cello matches Rivers' leaps on flute, grounded by a tuba undertow. In fact the more airy feel promoted by the flute gifts the ensemble space to shine, with the flute just one among equals. On piano, Rivers pulls back to allow Daley space for a harmonious tuba solo. A brief drum duet heralds Rivers' final change to soprano saxophone for the last seven minutes, where he embarks on a convoluted boppish course.

Even if this line up seems to have been a one off, it convinces as a totally integrated unit. The album is more than a match for those issued during this period, and comes highly recommended to anyone curious about Rivers' legacy.

Track Listing

Universal Message


Sam Rivers: also soprano saxophone, flute, piano; Joe Daley: also euphonium; Dave Holland: also cello.

Album information

Title: Zenith | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: NoBusiness Records


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