Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Sam Rivers Trio’s Last Show: An Immortal Performance

In many respects, this is a creepy album. Both a triumphant return to greatness and a swan song, Pi Records’ recent, posthumous release of multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers’ Reunion: Live in New York captures one of the most thrilling jazz trios of the 70s picking up like they’d never left off, at a one-off reunion concert at New York’s famed Miller Theatre in May of 2007. Rivers, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul were in a swinging mood that night, but they were also feeling mysterious, three of the world’s foremost improvisers making up songs on the spot in front of a sold-out audience just as they’d done 35 years earlier as stars of New York’s loft jazz scene. It’s free jazz like you never imagined it.

What’s most impressive is that Rivers, who died late last year, was 85 at the time. Which may contribute to the starkly saturnine energy of several of the interludes here. Although the album is divided up into discrete tracks, the concert, included in its entirety here, is simply two long jams. Yet intermingled amidst over ninety minutes of improvisational ebb-and-flow, conversation, call-and-response and pitch-and-follow is a stunning amount of genuine tunesmithing. While in keeping with the trio’s tradition, there was no rehearsal or pre-concert discussion of potential themes, it’s amazing how through-composed much of this music seems to be.

The group relies more on signals than cues, a casual “come over here” wave rather than a directive to jump in at any particular spot. Everybody in the band gets his chance to kick something off, or kick it to the curb. Holland is at the absolute peak of his game as darkly emphatic melody maker. Early on, he picks up on Rivers’ rather sepulchral, eerie chromatic mindset and locks in with it: to call this a telepathic performance wouldn’t be an overstatement. Altschul, one of the most consistently interesting and individual drummers of the last thirty-plus years, colors the music as much as he propels it, often relying on the cymbals more than the rest of the kit. Through straight-up swing shuffles, dark prowls around the perimeter, a couple of ominous, suspensefully minimalist monsterwalks on the toms, unexpectedly funky interludes and wry martial riffage, he’s obviously having the time of his life.

Rivers begins the show on tenor sax. Within a minute of some lively clustering around, the three have a nimble swing shuffle going. There’s push and pull and then a neat, almost twenty-minute Night in Tunisia-esque interlude that Rivers explores with a casual, modally-charged intensity that sometimes veers into outright menace. Rivers then switches to piano, exhibiting both neoromantic glimmer as well as a haunting, Satie-inflected, otherworldly angst. The trio eventually lock into a misterioso clave groove, turn Holland loose to go low and quiet and haunt the crowd by himself, Rivers moving to soprano sax and suddenly night becomes day. They end the first set with the most chilling interlude of the night, fueled by Holland’s chromatics and Altschul’s magnetic pulse, moving further and further from the center but always holding it steady.

Holland kicks off the second set on a darkly majestic note. Rivers, now on flute, feels around for his footing and eventually they take this one swinging as well but quickly give the rhythm section time to explore the ominous depths below. In many respects, this is a towering moment for Holland, and he knows it, particularly as he builds broodingly into a dark soul/gospel groove at the end of the second “track.” After a spacious, tense drum/bass exchange, Holland again moving toward a bitter exhaltation with stark bowed lines, tensely boomy chords and rippling descending runs, Rivers returns to the tenor for a racewalk in the direction of the finish line: nobody sees it coming.

Not everything here is so intense. There’s humor, too: momentary vaccillation over where to shut an idea down (which is how the concert eventually will end), wait-I’m-not-finished, can-I-keep-going-I’m-really-onto-something, those type of knowing moments that only exist within the kind of warm camaraderie that these players are relishing, knowing that it will probably be their last time together. It’s criminal that this trio wasn’t better documented on record – although one can only imagine how many prized cassette recordings might be stashed away in personal collections throughout the five boroughs of New York. So this pristinely recorded document takes on an even more important hstorical significance. Simply one of the best, most exhilarating, and most tantalizing recordings of the year.

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October 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Auspiciously Eclectic Ethiopian Sounds from Samuel Yirga

On his new album Guzo, Samuel Yirga polishes his reputation as a distinctive, individualistic voice on the piano. The Ethiopian-born, classically trained player has an extremely eclectic background encompassing jazz and funk as well as dub, notably with popular Ethiopiques project Dub Colossus. Here he blends the biting, austere motifs of traditional Ethiopian music with pretty much every other style he’s mined, emphasis on jazz as well as expansively moody, neoromantic solo pieces. As you might expect from someone with a background in dub, Yirga has a remarkable appreciation for space and dynamics: he lets notes linger, isn’t afraid to get very, very quiet, and his music is all the richer for it. While he can play very expressively, he chooses his spots, developing his ideas slowly and judiciously, leaving plenty of breathing room. The album was recorded with two different bands, in both his hometown of Addis Ababa and in the UK. All but one of the tracks are originals.

Yirga’s most exciting compatriot here is massinko fiddle player Endris Hassan, whose shivery, microtonal lines add an especially haunting edge to the pulsing, dub-influenced opening track as well as two others. Track two, Tiwista, features somberly bracing Ben Somers tenor sax over a steady, practically minimalist piano/bass vamp that Yirga eventually takes skyward with a series of spiraling clusters. The understatedly funky Firma Ena Wereket features more chilling massinko, a lushly dramatic horn chart and some memorably creepy, tersely chromatic explorations from Yirga – it’s one of the album’s high points.

From there, Yirga establishes a solo theme that sounds sort of like a minor-key variation on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, which he returns to several times , first taking on a majestic, gospel-flavored tinge, then working it through a pensive, minimalist waltz. The most lushly arranged pieces here feature the Creole Choir of Cuba, first exploring a nebulously cinematic theme with electric guitar, reggae-ish bass and towering banks of horns, then soaring through a similarly lush version of Rotary Connection’s 1971 psychedelic soul anthem I Am the Black Gold of the Sun. This stuff is a lot closer to film music than jazz.

Moving along, Yirga romps through a carefree, dancing solo number, followed by the strikingly eclectic My Head, an ensemble piece that incorporates everything from romping salsa to creepy music-box motifs and artful vibraphone voicings, set against distantly menacing, swirling tenor sax from Feleke Hailu. The album ends with a ferocious return to moody, modal Ethiopiques and then a new wave soul number, African Diasopra, Nicolette Suwoton stoically lamenting how Africa has been looted by imperialists and their collaborators: “You give your gifts away for shiny plastic things.” It’s an unexpected way to end an album full of surprises.

October 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment