Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings

Sam Rivers and the Rivbea Orchestra
Mosaic Select 38

Sam Rivers says he composes for his Rivbea Orchestra every day, just like some people write in their diary every day. If that’s an exaggeration, it’s probably only a small one. The 22 compositions, each teeming with sinewy melodies, dense harmonies, and vivid orchestrations, heard on Trilogy give every indication of a prolific pen. And if Rivers and several band members can be believed, they are just a small sample of what the multi-instrumentalist has created since he moved from New York to Florida in the early 1990s. The music on the three CDs in this Mosaic Select set, performed by a disciplined, enthusiastic, and committed band of 15 Orlando musicians, is a major late-career statement from Rivers, who at 88, is not merely recycling or refining old ideas, but continuing to explore new ones.

Rivers has always made music happen around him; he’s a scene maker if ever there was one. In Boston, where he was a student at the Boston Conservatory in the early 1950s, he scared up gigs at colleges and art galleries, when musicians didn’t exploit those venues as often as they have since. Recruited into a brief stint with the Miles Davis Quintet by fellow Bostonian Tony Williams in 1964, Rivers moved to New York. In 1971, he founded Studio Rivbea, perhaps the best known of the Lower East Side lofts. Moving to Orlando in 1992, Rivers discovered a large population of musicians working in places like Disney World and teaching at area colleges, and brought the best of them together in the Rivbea Orchestra.

Although Studio Rivbea built its reputation as a performance space for loft era small groups, one of River’s primary motives for establishing it was to have a place to rehearse his large ensemble compositions. Throughout the ‘70s, while his free improvisational trios and quartets drew the gigs and attention, Rivers poured out a steady flow of big band charts, few of which were ever recorded and released. Kevin Whitehead’s liner notes offer insight into the few albums that were made, which include the 1974 Impulse release, Crystals, and a 1982 Soul Note album, Colours, for an 11-piece saxophone ensemble, Winds of Manhattan. Two 1998 RCA CDs, Inspiration and Culmination, played by an all-star New York big band, offered more of a career survey, with pieces from the 1970s and 1980s appearing with newer ones. Twelve years ago, the self-produced Aurora gave a snap shot of his Orlando aggregation. Trilogy, which includes two live performances from 2008 and 2009 and a 2008 studio session, is the kind of full scale retrospective of recent work that River’s has long deserved.

Because his roots lie in bop (not to mention more than a passing knowledge of the blues) and because he reached his full maturity in free jazz, Rivers draws on two vast pools of experience to inform his big band composing. The melodic intricacies of his writing seem like a legacy of bop, while the formal freedom and dissonance heard in most of his charts grow out of the avant-garde of the past several decades. The bebop influence is especially strong on the second CD, Progeny, with features nine compositions dedicated to a statistically improbable number of daughters, nieces, and grand daughters. “Monique” is a good example. The aggressive disjunctions and unfettered harmonies of free jazz are more prevalent on the third disc, Edge, on compositions like “Brink” and “Point.” In all cases, Rivers scrambles the arranging conventions of swing era big bands, such as sectional call and response and punctuating riffs, so that there’s always a sense of familiarity in the midst of even the greatest tumult.

In most of the compositions – “Ganymede” and “Aura” on the first disc, Offering, are representative – long melodies accrete one on top of the other, then buckle and strike-slip into jumbles of concave and convex shapes, building pressure and tension as they grind past one another. The profusion of ideas in any one piece is dazzling – an opening line many never repeat again, or if it reappears it will be dramatically reorchestrated; chords and riffs vary in color and density. New material is introduced that builds off previous material, extending a chart into a large continuously evolving form. The development often sounds spontaneous, although it’s carefully controlled, and even the most complex writing lays comfortably in the groove. There’s a constant tension between the precision and focus of the writing and the sprawl and expansiveness of its scale.

Most of the massively complex writing employs rock and Latin inflected rhythms that anchor them in pre-hip hop popular music and give them a certain democratic appeal. “Spice” is an example of what can legitimately be called a Sam Rivers jazz-rock feel, a medium tempo rock/soul groove with jazzy flexibility. His Latin pulses (which he generally reserved for his flute improvising in small groups), heard for example on “Iisha,” are equally characteristic and appealing. Big band jazz-rock isn’t always convincing, but Rivers consistently makes it work. The excessiveness of the music – the unrelenting inventiveness and profusion of melody, the sheer weight and impermeable density of the ensemble, and the continuous string of soloists – enlivens the familiar pulses. The music simply jumps and dances and rolls along with irresistible momentum.

In Rivers’ big band music, every voice must be heard, not just the composer’s. On every track, several members of the band get solo time, usually no more than four or eight bars, rarely a chorus, but their improvising is always an integral part of the composition. The soloists have only a short time to make their impression, but over the course of the CDs, one starts to perk up at the sound of one familiar voice or another. Most of the orchestra will be unknown to listeners outside the fortunate Orlando area, but one starts to recognize and anticipate many of the soloists in the band, such as baritone saxophonist Brian Mackie, trumpeter Brian Scanlon, alto saxophonist Chris Charles, tenor David Pate, and trombonist Keith Oshiro. Rivers himself improvises on either tenor or soprano sax at least once on every track, his sharp, flinty sound only slightly rounded by age. But everyone breathes life into the music and it’s almost unfair to single out anyone.

The rapid succession of changing voices creates a crowded canvas; each piece is a busy street scene. Sometimes the alternation of soloist with rhythm section and soloist with ensemble becomes predictable, but Rivers also keeps things fresh by having the band coming in unexpected moments, or not at all, or by pairing soloists, and by making sure each time the band is heard, something new is happening in the writing. The kaleidoscopic improvising and continuously changing written parts seem of a piece, part of a strategy to make the music grow beyond the chicken scratches on the staff paper and take on a life of its own.

Big band music is celebratory by nature, with the communal efforts of the band members creating “a power greater than itself.” These vibrant albums are especially joyful and on the live sessions you can sense how well they communicate their exuberance and fellow feeling to the audience. But no one sounds happier than the band’s leader, whose hoots of approval and delighted shouts often are heard above the audience’s. Rivers has every reason to be pleased.
–Ed Hazell

Cuneiform Records

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