"Tumultuous" is a word often applied to the music of jazz multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers. It is also an accurate description of his relations with a number of record companies over the years.
So it was no surprise to hear that Rivers, upon emerging from a recording session last year, was thinking of forming his own label -- a logical step along the independent course he has maintained since leaving the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964 and subsequently moving to New York.
Talk of such a label generated a good deal of excitement in jazz circles because few musicians have been as influential as Rivers during the past 15 years. In the '60s he had taken his cue toward modernism from Cecil Taylor (with whom he worked from 1968 to 1973) and Ornette Coleman. In the '70s, his Studio Rivbea served as a focal point of Jazz exploration in New York.
It provided musicians with not only a studio, but a shelter and showcase for their creations -- from the subtle interplay of two instruments to the full-blown orchestrations Rivers composed for his 14-piece ensemble.
The release of "Waves" (Tomato 8002) finds Rivers on an independent label -- but not his own. It seems that he has decided, at least for the time being, that his efforts are better served on the creative side of recording. "Waves" confirms that opinion.
Composed of five tracks that Rivers laid down last summer, "Waves" attests to the virtuosity of its players and to Rivers' developing skills as a composer. Often regarded as an emotional artist, Rivers invests the music on "Waves" with a logic you could trip over, a perfectly realized symmetry and an overpowering sense of direction shared equally by the participants in the session -- Dave Holland (bass, cello) Joe Daley (tuba, baritone horn) and Thurman Barker (drums and percussion). The seamless support provided by Holland and Daley is the fruit of their labors with Rivers in the past, and Barker's work with Anthony Braxton and the AACM has left him primed for this volatile setting.
Rivers is best known as a saxaphonist, but his first instrument was the piano. It still governs much of his writing which tends to be linear and contrapuntal. Appropriately, "Shockwave" opens the album with Rivers at the piano, his playing pensive and polite. Slowly the simple melody begins to twist and writhe, the pace quickens, lower register notes sound off ominously as other voices enter -- bells, drums, bass, baritone horn and ultimately Rivers" indomitable tenor sax. "Shockwave" soon develops the textured density that marks much of Rivers' work; but the parts are greater than the whole. Each instrument enjoys a sense of freedom and individuality in the mix. And just as Rivers was able to charge the opening passage with anticipation, "Shockwave" subsides with an unmistakable finality -- a solitary, almost funereal drum roll rises above the chaos to make the close statement.
Stylistically, "Shockwave" is an extensive of Rivers' work in 1975 and his album "Crystals." At that time, Rivers working on intergrating discrete melodies through a large ensemble. But other selections on "waves" are more suggestive of what Rivers now performs in concert. "Torch" for instance, is an unpredictable, playful and occasionally vigorous exercise on flute. "Pulse" explores the various open/closed tones Rivers extracts from the soprano saxophone against shifting meters set up by Holland and Daley, who close out the piece with a surprising double-time duet on "Shortnin' Bread." And "Surge" is an apt title for the electric tenor sax solo that pushes Rivers to the limits on the album's final track.
All told, "Waves" is a refinement of what Rivers has experimented with in the past. By freely alternating between piano, flute and tenor/soprano saxophones and by limiting the length of his compositions, Rivers has made "Waves" one of his most varied and accessible albums -- and one of his best.