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

More Great Billy Bang Sounds From the Archives

When a great jazz musician leaves us, invariably archival recordings begin to surface: some released in a cynical attempt to capitalize on the player’s legacy, some to further cement that legacy. Happily, the newly released History of Jazz in Reverse by the Fab Trio – bassist Joe Fonda, drummer Barry Altschul and the late, great Billy Bang on violin – falls into the latter category. Each of these players made a name for himself in jazz improvisation, but there’s a purposefulness on this 2005 studio session to rival just about any album of carefully planned compositions. Not everything here is a jam – there’s a bright, Asian-tinged homage to Don Cherry by Bang that could pass for a Cherry piece, the violin’s microtonal pizzicato evoking the sound of a koto. And the three vamp their way through the Afro-Cuban standard Chan Chan, which only gets interesting when Altschul decides to mimic a timbales solo – and pulls it off with a mighty grin.

But the juiciest parts of the album are the improvisations. Altschul manages to be everywhere at once, holding the center while leapfrogging, galloping, cartwheeling and expanding the perimeter: it’s an impactful performance, both literally and figuratively. Fonda is the nucleus of this particular isotope, a terse pulse and omnipresent voice of reason when the violin and the drums go machinegunning their way out of the thicket of sound (that reference is deliberate, Bang’s Vietnam War experiences having been such a defining part of his life). The most stunning creation here is the most terse: the trio learned while in the studio that their friend Sam Rivers’ wife Bea had died, so they made up an elegy on the spot, an anguished yet absolutely regal dirge of sorts that’s equal part blues and oldtime spiritual.

The title track makes an interesting journey backwards from free jazz to swing, and then a boogie that Altschul, counterintuitive as always, uses as a graceful exit. Bang’s alternately shivery staccato flurries and blues-drenched minor-key swirls are characteristically chilling and exhilarating, particularly on the opening jam, Homeward Bound, as Fonda and Altschul tiptoe in tandem around them. There’s also the deliciously chromatic, funky, conversational Implications, and From There to Here, the one track that would have been better left on the cutting-room floor since even Bang can’t keep up with its breakneck pace (Fonda quickly finds out that it makes more sense to hit on the “one” rather than walking it, while Altschul deviously plays halfspeed). But that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise intense and often haunting session that reliably challenging Finnish label Tum Records happily saw fit to release.

January 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Ullmann/Swell 4 – News? No News

The most recent jazz album we reviewed here was part sleepy bedtime jazz and part solace-after-a-hard-day jazz. The one before that was boudoir jazz. The Ullmann/Swell 4’s debut as a unit together is fun jazz, headphone jazz, the kind of album where it’s obvious from the first few notes what a good time the band is having. You want psychedelic? Wow. The star of the show, at the absolute top of his game here, is veteran drummer Barry Altschul. He refuses to sit still or stop misbehaving, in the process delivering a clinic in how to propel a song on the off-beat. Meanwhile, the group converse and shift shapes, careening joyously between blazing hooks and impressively terse, actually interesting free jazz interplay. They open it up rousingly with Altschul establishing what will be his trademark here, rumbling and crashing around under a circular horn motif, trombonist Steve Swell eventually running amok, then tossing the hot potato to his co-leader, tenor saxist Gebhard Ullmann.

The second track, aptly title New York opens with a swaying vamp and a sly bluesy hook – Swell takes over as the boom turns into more of a crash, bustle alternating with chaos. Like New York, the underpinning is sturdy and stands up to constant use. Track three is similar to two but quieter, morphing into a crashing swing number with Ullmann skirting the melody, resisting it as the drums do the same with the rhythm. They follow that with a more exploratory joint, Ullmann throwing off some high overtones and getting into a casual conversation with Swell.

The next cut takes a pretty, cinematic ballad and pulls the wings off, Ullmann and Swell in turn, and all of a sudden they bring it back but Altschul is still off in cumulo-nimbus land somewhere.The title track gets sandwiched by two artfully constructed improvisations, the first kind of like what happens when four jazz guys walk into a very quiet bar, the second far more invigorated. The song itself percolates along on a catchy bass hook from Hilliard Greene, who plays ringmaster, whether heating it up for a fiery duel between Swell and Ullmann’s bass clarinet, or simply holding it together as Altschul does his thing. The cheery Berlin has Greene’s bouncy pulse again providing the glue as the horns slowly and ineluctably take it outside. The album ends on a high note with the multistylistic showcase Airtight, playfully swoopy bass turning into a funk vamp as Altschul prowls around and swipes at his cymbals to keep the cliches away, Ullmann’s bass clarinet solo all over the place register-wise, trombone fluttering as bass and bass clarinet interlock hypnotically with the drums, finally Greene’s reliable low register signaling the way out of the labyrinth. There’s a lot going on here, headphones absolutely required.

March 6, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment