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Sam Rivers Quintet
No Business NBCD 124

Sam Rivers, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul had played together on occasion – in quartets with Anthony Braxton or Paul Bley, say – before teaming up as a regular trio. And even after that 1974–78 unit gelled, it would work with diverse one-shot add-ons – Olu Dara, Mario Schiano, Tom Varner – and semi-regularly with Joe Daley on low brass, sometimes adding an extra drummer to make a quintet. So it goes on the high-spirited Zenith, recorded at the Berlin Jazz Days in the fall of 1977: the core three plus Daley and Charli Persip. By then, the trio esthetic was so well-established, adding two players enhanced but didn’t substantially alter the band dynamic.

Still, for those (like critics) who like to label things, the better to get a handle on them, just what kind of music did the (extended) trio play? Not free music, exactly. They didn’t plot out sets in advance, but there were a few things you could reliably count on: that Sam would play each of his axes in turn – tenor, soprano, flute, and piano – in discreet episodes, punctuated by bass or drum solos. They’d play some rumbling free jazz loosely tethered to a key center or two or three, and there’d be long vamping sections (sometimes) making pivotal use of the bass’s open A, D, and G strings. But to judge from the trio’s recordings, those recurrences didn’t freeze into shticks – the vamps might be fast or slow, and not associated with any particular Rivers instrument, and Sam’s appearances on his various axes didn’t gravitate to set keys or tempos. He was always a stickler for being harmonically coherent: was fluent in unusual keys, wouldn’t cheat when playing in a particular mode, and let no passing chord go unacknowledged when running changes. As Rivers said in 2011: “Dizzy said I was the only musician he knew who played every chord, playing standard music – I thought that was the idea!” Around that time he also said, “Swing is out ... probably the dullest thing I can think of.” But who in 1970s new jazz swung harder? That rhythm section had been connecting for years in a range of contexts. Improvised sets let Holland and Altschul access all that broad experience.

Sam Rivers                                                                                                                      ©Roberto Masotti

When Zenith was recorded, Rivers had been in Europe almost a month, having brought over an orchestra (including all the players here), before continuing on tour with the trio. (We rely on Rick Lopez’s essential Sam Rivers sessionography. Lopez turned up a listing for a lone New York gig – for this very quintet, at Studio Rivbea – smack in the middle of that tour, which is unlikely.) The Berlin quintet takes its cues from the trio playbook, plugging into its working method. As usual, Sam or Dave stakes out a prevailing key: the squalling tenor episode that kicks off this continuous 53-minute set (save for a brief applause gap when Sam moves to piano) gravitates before long to something C major-y; late in the set when Rivers picks up soprano, hovering around its home flat keys, Holland as ever is right on it.

Joe Daley joins Holland down in the depths, and as annotator Ed Hazell points out, the two never collide – it helps that Holland could grab a clear pattern and stick to it, a fixed target. Daley’s tuba also frees up Holland to pick up cello, his second instrument back then, played free or vampy, with his typically accurate intonation. As soloist Daley is more of a presence on euphonium, playing in a high valve-trombone range, often backing and echoing Rivers in a deliberate way – the kind of imitative play some free improvisers shun, but which works well here, making Rivers’ music sound more like itself.

To hear Barry Altschul and Charli Persip play together is to understand why Henry Threadgill would count two drummers as a single voice in his Sextett. Altschul was and is a swinger already, and Persip is even more inclined in that direction, and there are moments when the two double down (as under tenor and fluttering euph, at 9 minutes), where the beat can get downright ferocious. The cymbal-traps cushion is double-thick; the doubled rhythm section greases the skids for everybody. The virtue of Sam’s episodic sets is that they’d venture all over, from the ferocious to the pastoral, the dense to the airy, playing to their strengths in no fixed order or combination. With four musicians on his wavelength: now that is something to hear.
–Kevin Whitehead

Intakt Records

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