Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Sam Rivers Quintet - Undulation (NoBusiness Records, 2021)

As Bill Shoemaker lays out in his fine liner essay that accompanies this album, the early eighties was a time of transition for the great multi-instrumentalist and composer Sam Rivers. The prior decade had been quite fruitful, as he had been the proprietor of one of the most well known jazz lofts of that burgeoning underground scene, as well as releasing high quality records on major and highly regarded independent record labels. But by the eighties things had changed drastically, property redevelopment in New York City priced artists and musicians out of the loft market, while the rising neo-conservative jazz movement pushed Rivers into the hands of much smaller record labels with inadequate distribution. In league with the brilliant late seventies / early eighties avant free funk of Arthur Blythe and James Blood Ulmer, this concert, recorded in Florence in May of 1981, shows Rivers adapting with the times, playing with Jerry Byrd on guitar and Rael-Wesley Grant on electric bass in addition to longtime musical associate Steve Ellington on drums. The great Sam Rivers Trio performances of the seventies presented the leader playing several instruments over a boiling bass and drums backdrop. Things have changed here, as the music is as often as not centered around unaccompanied solo portions, in the beginning where Rivers develops a lengthy and fascinating outrĂ© tenor saxophone improvisation, only to come back to the band and join the funky bass boosted framework that they have developed. Ellington gets space for a lengthy and well delivered drum solo, then Rivers builds from the piano, leading to a wonderful cascading full group section, with everybody at their best led by the free flowing notes of piano and guitar. Rivers grows more muscular, kneading the keys and pulling out strong chords, before pulling back to a jaunty theme. There's a section for guitar that's snarling with added vocal encouragement, basic bass and drum backing, encouraging Byrd to wail in a bluesy but slightly disconnected manner. Rivers moves to flute with subtle accompaniment from the band, he's brilliant and unique on this instrument, creating beautifully flowing sounds and moving into an unaccompanied section. interspersed with vocalizations while scatting and humming into the instrument. The band returns at lightning speed pushing the tempo, leading to an open space bass solo, played in a nimble and impressive fashion. Rivers returns with the full band, still playing flute in a lightly funky setting, he scats the finale while announcing the musicians to the audience. This is a valuable recording, not only for the musicality on display, but for shedding some light on Sam Rivers' activates in the eighties. Recording and performing opportunities grew more scarce as the decade went on, leading to Rivers joining Dizzy Gillespie's band and moving to Orlando. But fear not, this set the stage for one of the greatest final acts in jazz history. Undulation - NoBusiness Records

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