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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