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Sam Rivers - Culmination
Sam Rivers - Culmination
As an aspiring young musician, I had the great fortune of studying with the extraordinary saxophonist/flautist/pianist/composer/theoretician Sam Rivers. An incredibly challenging, enriching and invaluable experience, those two years provided an up-close look at one of the most individualistic and innovative musical visionaries of the late 20th century. His entire musical sensibility, while deeply rooted in the Jazz and blues traditions, also exhibits a deep understanding of the more adventurous European classical composers, not in a rhythmic sense, but rather the harmonic. Unlike most contemporary Jazz composers who utilize European influences, Rivers does not aim for the abstract or atonal. His music swings mightily whether in trio format or 18-piece big band.

As wonderful and powerful a soloist he is on tenor, soprano, flute and piano, his large ensemble music is really the heart and soul of his vision. Unfortunately, other than the amazing Crystals on Impulse (long unavailable), he’s never really had much opportunity to showcase his extraordinary talent in this realm on record. But with last year’s Grammy-nominated Inspiration and its second installment Culimination, RCA Victor is to be congratulated for recording and issuing some of the most amazing music in recent memory by Sam’s incredible Rivbea All-Star Orchestra.

Employing the traditional big band instrumentation of five reeds, four trumpets and four trombones (actually the great Joe Daley plays baritone horn instead), but eschewing piano for the second bass line of Bob Stewart’s tuba, the personnel is a veritable who’s who of the adventurous New York scene over the past twenty years, including reedmen Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Chico Freeman, Gary Thomas and Hamiet Bluiett, trumpeter Baikida Carroll, and trombonists Ray Anderson and Joseph Bowie. Bassist Doug Matthews and drummer Anthony Cole, who are in Sam’s regular Orlando-based trio, provide brilliant support.

The music is incredibly rich and wildly imaginative while remaining totally accessible and swinging incessantly. Thick textured horn lines weave in and out with each other, sometimes harmonically dense and other times delightfully mellifluous, often simultaneously. These are not traditional theme, solos, solos with riffs-type structures here. The notated portions are in a constant swirl of motion under, over and around the soloists. Rivers, whose flute, tenor and soprano work is typically spectacular, dances through the layers of sound like Baryshnikov, always with invention, wit and perfect execution.

The melodic lines are immensely lyrical, even at their most challenging and the energy and thrust by the exceedingly together ensemble makes the entire CD swing like a mutha. Everyone gets solo space among the seven Rivers originals, and they’re uniformly excellent, always in cohesion with the musical center. Although every composition stands perfectly on its own, there is so much music contained in each piece that it’s better to take this as a single extended work with seven magical movements.

This is truly one of the finest recordings of the past twenty years in any genre. Overwhelmingly superlative.

George Lane


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