Old Man Rivers

Rivers's writing for larger bands is slightly mythic. One hears of great quantities of music in multiple arrangements, ranging greatly in length, usually excerpted on the rare occasions when they are heard at all. You can follow his progress from Dimensions and Extensions (Blue Note, 1967), in which he mastered the ploy of setting solos against the ensemble like long balls falling into a glove; to the benchmark Crystals (Impulse, 1974), a case study in notated anarchy; to the drier and more contained 10-piece saxophones-and-flutes unit, Winds of Manhattan, on Colours (one wonders if the original tapes exist, before the solos were excised). But the records don't prepare you for the dense and clamorous enchantment of hearing his orchestral music on stage. The 14-piece ensemble at Sweet Basil was a long time coming, and if it shortchanged Rivers the soloist, it offered a conception so sure and seasoned as to belie the music's evident difficulty, limited rehearsals, and dearth of performances.

Sam Rivers (left), with Chico Freeman, Gary Thomas, Steve Coleman, and Greg Osby.
Hiroyuki Ito
Sam Rivers (left), with Chico Freeman, Gary Thomas, Steve Coleman, and Greg Osby.

The repertoire, including an updated ''Tranquility'' (from Crystals), with layered dissonances and harmonies that mimic Rivers's vocal squalls (or vice versa); a sumptuous orchestration of ''Beatrice,'' with handsome passages for the reed section; and the funky ''Rejuvenation,'' which gave each band member eight or 16 bars to sign his name. Two constants: The pieces are sewn from episodes that change precipitously; and the solos are very, very short, forcibly reprising the talent for brevity that flourished in the days of broadcast remotes and three-minute records, then disappeared. The music was often like an ocean's roar, with heads suddenly popping above the waves to have their say before falling back, from roaring Hamiet Bluiett (who played a baritone solo in a range higher than the preceding altoist) to contemplative Chico Freeman to brawny Gary Thomas to silvery Steve Coleman to punctilious Greg Osby, just to mention the magnificent reed section. You felt you got to know something essential about each of them from those compressed volleys. Trombonists Ray Anderson and Joe Bowie have never played with more concentrated wit, and Anthony Cole modulated a funk passage into an elated second-line strut. After, Rivers shouted his last chordal squalls and the band played ''Happy Birthday.'' Jazz was growing older, and having a damned good time doing it.

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