Page One


Upon graduating from Hofstra University with a business degree, Steve Backer began to negotiate the chutes and ladders of the booming late ‘60s record industry. He soon gained a reputation as a top promotions man at Elektra, “breaking” records nationally by, among others, Judy Collins, The Doors, and Carly Simon. Hired in 1971 by Impulse’s overlords at ABC/Dunhill, then making money by the truckload with Top Ten hits by Jim Croce, Steely Dan, and others, Backer was charged with refreshing Impulse’s image. Riding the wave of two-disc best-of collections and concept albums then reshaping the rock market, Backer launched several series that cherry-picked and repackaged items from the Impulse catalog. The first series was concept-driven; titles played on the label’s name (Irrepressible Impulses), or referenced current events like the onset of the decade’s first oil crisis (No Energy Crisis). The second focused on an individual instrument – The Saxophone, The Drums and The Bass. The third were best-of collections by, among others, sales leaders like Pharoah Sanders and John and Alice Coltrane.

The repackaged Impulses received a surprising amount of airplay on Northeast progressive rock stations and college stations, prompting Backer to convince the label to subsidize a regional tour featuring Sanders, Alice Coltrane, saxophonist John Klemmer and violinist Michael White. The Boston-raised Backer’s contacts with influential FM rock stations like WBCN – “The Rock of Boston” – yielded capacity crowds at Fenway Theatre and other venues. Emboldened, Backer added Archie Shepp to the card and took the tour national. The risk paid off for Impulse, who saw appreciable sales increases, and for Backer, who was promoted to General Manager and granted sole signing power.

Backer’s first signings were typical of his approach with not only Impulse, but, later, with labels like Arista and RCA, a mix of ascending, accessible artists who could attract fans of Steely Dan and other erudite rock units, and cutting-edge artists whose sales would at least cover costs, giving the label prestige without much, if any drag on the bottom line. At the time, neither Keith Jarrett nor Gato Barbieri were sure bets, sales-wise. The pianist’s short run with Atlantic had run aground when he ventured into arty rock-infused albums, replete with wane vocals, sappy lyrics and recorders. Backer did not consider Jarrett’s newly inked contract with ECM to be a threat to his Impulse sales – presumably because the budding Munich-based label had yet to secure US distribution – so the pianist’s projects with ECM were not conditioned in his Impulse contract. The clock was winding down on Barbieri’s contract with Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label; while the Argentine tenor saxophonist made a substantial initial impact with The Third World, his staying power came into question with each succeeding, increasingly formulaic album.

Signing Marion Brown, Dewey Redman and Rivers signaled the label’s continued support of the avant-garde, in part by extending the Coltrane legacy. This accounts for the return of Brown, whose sole prior Impulse date – Three for Shepp, recorded in late ‘66 – had dismal sales, despite coming on the heels of his work on Coltrane’s monumental Ascension. Brown’s impressionistic, often delicately beautiful Afternoon of a Georgia Faun had been issued on ECM in 1971, but had barely caused a blip on the US press’ radar. Redman had a thinner history with Impulse, appearing only on Ornette Coleman’s Crisis and the debut of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, both recorded in 1969; however, the Texas tenor had recently joined what would soon be called Jarrett’s American quartet, the focus of the pianist’s Impulse projects, creating cross-marketing potential. While Rivers had no prior history with Impulse and no overt connection to Coltrane, he had a fan in Backer, who had frequently heard Rivers in Boston and held Rivers’ Blue Notes in high esteem.

Rivers was signed in time for him to be part of “Impulse! Night” at the Montreux festival on July 6, just days after the conclusion of the NYMJF. For his first concert in Europe at the helm of his own ensemble, Rivers presented his working trio with McBee and drummer Norman Connors. Trios had been the primary conduit for what Rivers called his “free form playing” for nearly a decade – he, Altschul and bassist Jimmie Stevenson performed at the fabled October Revolution in Jazz in 1964. “I’ve been doing it long enough to be very conscious of developing forms,” he told Palmer in ‘75, “and set it up so that there’s a rise and fall throughout.” Rivers generally divided his trio performances into four lengthy sections, featuring, in no set order, flute, piano, soprano and tenor saxophones. Each section, in turn, was shaped by rhythmic feels, which usually see-sawed between racing urgency and relaxed grooves. Materials were generated spontaneously, and ranged from strident atonality to pungent blues, and most everything in-between.

McBee, who played on the trio track included on Dimensions and Extensions, had been the most constant presence in Rivers’ trio during the intervening half-dozen years. Since his mid ‘60s stint with Charles Lloyd, McBee’s facility with octaves-spanning runs, stunning glissandi and riveting figures played at and beyond the edge of the fingerboard, had made him one of the more in-demand bassists in New York. Connors was a newcomer to Rivers’ circle, having made strong first impressions on albums by Pharoah Sanders, usually in tandem with McBee. While Smith and Altschul often employed finesse in Rivers’ trio, Connors was a brazen power drummer, the impact of his incessantly pounded bass drum, thunderous toms, and crash cymbals occasionally nearing concussive force.

Although Rivers would later concede that the resulting albumwas not the best example of his trio music, Streams nevertheless conveyed the exciting ebb and flow of a Rivers trio performance. (At the time of his initial admissions to Brower and others, Rivers thought the concerts documented on Hues, better represented his approach. The album has a fractured history: parts were first issued on Backer’s samplers, others on the 1976 LP; a 1998 CD finally included all the material.) The opening section for tenor commences with a non-starter barrage from Connors, requiring Rivers’ best efforts over the first few minutes to, first, rein in the drummer and, then, get the trio shifting smoothly between soul-shredding gestalts, sleek sprints and brief cooling lulls. By the end of the 18-minute workout, Rivers had delivered a précis for a post-Coltrane aesthetic, one that encompassed such roof-raising tenors of the ‘30s and ‘40s as Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb, and grounded the heavens-opening cries and the primal screams associated with Ayler and Peter Brötzmann. Montreux’s announcer loftily proclaimed Rivers to be “a giant of the tenor saxophone” in his introduction, and Rivers proved him right.

Rivers then proceeds to establish his prowess as a flutist, the flute – not the tenor – being the instrument that won him his only Down Beat Critics Poll in 1978. Stylistically, Rivers’ flute playing is somewhat comparable to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s for its bright, voice and breath accented swing, and a lyricism compacting African American jazz precursors like work songs, Asian-tinged pentatonics and European pastoral lilt. While it lacks the sonic punch he wields with the tenor, the flute uniquely reveals Rivers’ vaulting intuition. With McBee giving him and Connors a wealth of groove-priming figures to build upon, Rivers pivots effortlessly through a succession of rhythmic feels, unspooling long strands of melody that move the body as often as they spark the mind. Each instrument Rivers plays reveals an aspect of his artistic persona; as would repeatedly be the case in his subsequent trio recordings, Rivers’ flute rides the performance’s most buoyant grooves, unabashedly conveying his joy.

In contrast to the explosiveness of his tenor or the effusiveness of his flute, Rivers’ voice on piano is strenuously cerebral, his polyphonic materials resistant to easy venting through dramatic effects. Given that the piano is obviously not his primary instrument, it is a smart approach that emphasizes his technical strengths – he crisply and cleanly keys knotty lines with both hands, without muddying them – while avoiding the type of Taylor-associated pyrotechnics that are beyond his grasp. Subsequently, it is Rivers’ idiosyncratic ideas that make the piano section of Streams and his other trio recordings engaging listening.

Structurally, Rivers’ tendency to place the piano third in his line-up of instruments also set up blazing finales, which, at Montreux, he ignited with the soprano. Heckman’s observation in his Contours notes that Rivers’ soprano was neither like Coltrane’s nor Steve Lacy’s was even more true eight years later, and could also include Shorter, who had yet to record on soprano in ‘65. Additionally, Heckman’s insights into how Rivers’ soprano’s “Eastern character” was “heightened by [the] use of rhythmically potent figures that rise, often in triplets, above and out of a fundamental note that is repeated in quasi-drone fashion” is equally applicable to his solo on Streams, albeit with new elements like altissimo chirps and buzzing textures.

The fire burns itself out; the crowd erupts; despite Rivers’ later second thoughts about the album, Streams was exactly the tour-de-force required to rebrand Rivers as a free jazz juggernaut. And, it hit the streets as if on cue for Impulse’s fall ‘73 package tour, a potent triple bill in which Rivers’ trio with McBee and Connors followed Barbieri’s South American ensemble and Jarrett’s quartet, at such prestigious venues as the Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. The tour’s ticket sales and the resulting press coverage and record sales indicated a prompt follow-up to Streams. Additionally, Rivers played the Molde Jazz Festival in November with Altschul and Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen), who played with Rivers regularly during his New York residency in ‘72. (It was Andersen who arranged the gig, another one-off, bought the tape from Norwegian Broadcasting, and gave it to Rivers at the end of ‘73.) Rivers took the opportunity to exercise his contractual prerogative to record an album of his often symphony-length compositions for large orchestras; however, the capacity of the LP format required Rivers to truncate many of his charts, and Impulse’s budget limited Rivers to take only 13 other musicians into the studio the following March with a one-day recording schedule.

Despite the constraints – and perhaps, in part, because of them – Crystals is a monumental record, albeit one that never received its full due for several reasons: the music’s irreducible originality and complexity prompted reflexive (read: lazy) critical praise upon release in September 1974; the album went out of print a few years after regime change at Impulse (among the ousted was Michel, who in his own words, was “unceremoniously dumped” in 1975); and it took until 2002 for the album to be reissued on CD, and then only for three years as part of an available-for-a-limited-time-only marketing program by Universal Music Group, the label’s latest corporate overlord.

One of the remarkable aspects of Rivers’ compositions on Crystals is that they were composed in a 13-year period between 1959 and ‘72, roughly the number of years between Coltrane joining Miles Davis’ quintet and the saxophonist’s death, a period of rapid, profound evolution. The difference between the two artists is that even casual listeners can pinpoint the date of a given Coltrane recording within a year. Without Rivers’ detailed liner notes, it is difficult to even approximate when he composed any of the six pieces included on the album. This is because Rivers was influenced by “the group or band-sized ensemble developed in the late twenties and early thirties and its instruments (saxophones, trombones, trumpets, bass and drums) rather than the harmony, form and structure [of the music of that period] which is basically the same today.”

Rivers opens the album with “Exultation;” begun in 1959 and completed in ‘64, the composition represents Rivers’ “break with traditional concepts … disregarding traditional modulations and thinking more in sounds, rhythms, colors, clusters, images, superimposed rhythms and unrelated melodies. Each instrument was thought of and written for as a solo part.” The piece commences with red-lining exclamatory power, which initially masks how Rivers compressed discrete parts into an overwhelming whole. This is just the first of many passages that benefited from the week of rehearsals Rivers had conducted prior to the session, and what Michel describes as Rivers’ ability “to drag great musicians to places they had never been before.” A groove emerges and the ensemble gives way as Rivers launches into a searing soprano solo. Instead of riffs, Rivers used what he called “backgrounds” when a section of the orchestra buttressed a soloist; here, as is the case elsewhere, Rivers’ backgrounds are often materials that merit being in the foreground of a composition. The wind-down of intensity at the end of the performance brings Rivers’ idea of an ensemble passage comprised of solo parts in bolder relief.

Originally envisioned as “a relief between two intense Sections” of a longer work, Rivers began composing “Tranquility” during his residency as part of the Cecil Taylor Unit at Fondation Maeght in 1969, completing it in ‘72. An opening, slinky vamp by bassist Gregory Maker and tuba player Joe Daley (who would tour regularly later in the decade as part of Rivers’ Tuba Trio) is misdirecting; instead of a funky theme, Rivers cues a 120-measure, atonal ensemble statement. Unlike many composers who equate atonality with spiky, fragmentary phrases, Rivers wrote undulating parts that gently ripple through each other. In doing so, Rivers reinforces a relaxed mood that is antithetical to the traditional, disruptive use of atonality. Unfortunately, time constraints dictated a fade-out on an appealingly languorous Rivers flute solo.

“Postlude” was also extracted from an extended work. Penned in 1968, when Rivers was based in Harlem, it is a ballad at its core, a string of yearning phrases in search of tonal and emotional resolution, stated at the outset by Rivers’ unaccompanied tenor. Again, Rivers gives each horn in the orchestra forty or more measures of their own similarly emotive melodic materials. This results in some parts ending and beginning again before others reach their conclusion, creating new waves in the polyphonic fabric. Rivers wrote that “[t]he beauty of this section is enhanced when it is extended to eight repetitions or more,” which the limited capacity of an LP side could not accommodate. Even though Rivers music is again not presented as he intended it to be, “Postlude” strikes a poignant chord in less than four minutes to end the A side of the original LP.

The B side is devoted to a three-part 1967 composition, “Bursts-Orb-Earth Song,” that can be heard as a creation myth. “Bursts” is part old-school cutting contest and part programmatic composition, as tenor saxophonists Roland Alexander, Paul Jeffrey and Rivers take turns navigating an accelerating, cluster-dotted polyphony at breakneck speed and with life-or-death urgency, culminating with a big bang from the orchestra. Rivers’ flute wafts over brushed drums, rattles and plump bass notes at the outset of “Orb;” with murmuring and chattering horns entering by ones and twos, the orchestra peaks, jettisoning a racing Rivers solo, supported by a robust groove, brass fanfares and underpinning woodwind figures. The music ultimately cools almost to a hush when a sudden blast from the orchestra ends the piece unexpectedly. The initially festive spirit of “Earth Song” progressively intensifies as its groove is supplanted by jagged brass and saxophone phrases and, finally, nine pugilistic clusters that echoes “Bursts,” giving the three-part work a Finnegans Wake­-like quality of ending at its starting point.

Many milestone jazz orchestra albums were released in the 1970s, including Charles Mingus’ Let My Children Hear Music, George Russell’s Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature, and Anthony Braxton’s Creative Orchestra Music 1976. Forty years after its release, Crystals stands shoulder to shoulder with them all.


By the time Crystals was released in September, Studio Rivbea was prominent among the Downtown lofts, its programming frequently cited in the reviews and picks of The Village Voice and SoHo Weekly News. The national jazz press had also taken note: Rivbea’s ‘74 Summer Jazz Fest schedule headlined a June Down Beat news section that also announced the departure of saxophonist Dave Liebman from Miles Davis’ group and the death of Paul Gonsalves, the tenor saxophonist credited with jump-starting Duke Ellington’s stalled career with his 27-chorus solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the 1956 Newport festival. The buzz about Rivbea grew when the September issue of Coda, the influential Canadian magazine, ran a 64 column inch review of the festival (a point of comparison: in 2016, Down Beat cover stories ran approximately 70 column inches). Even before his detailed account and assessment of every ensemble that played in the festival, correspondent Randy Hutton offered a comparative analysis of the Newport experience versus the Studio Rivbea experience, including offerings, ticket prices, and venue characteristics, a ringing endorsement of lofts – and Rivbea in particular – as the loci of jazz vitality in New York.

Rivers’ profile outside the US also rose during the summer of ‘74. Two weeks after the end of the Studio Rivbea festival, Rivers travelled to Europe with Holland’s quartet for the Antibes festival. The next day, Rivers’ “Freedom Trio,” played the Umbria festival in Perugia, Italy, the first non-Rivbea performance by the trio with Holland and Altschul (Braxton played a separate solo alto saxophone set. The quartet was to perform the next day in Molde, but Braxton fell ill, resulting in the second performance by what became Rivers’ most celebrated trio of the ‘70s.) The Umbria concert prompted Arrigo Polillo, Director of Musica Jazz, to lavish praise – roughly translated as “a fantastic set” and “very fresh music” – in the esteemed Italian journal’s October issue, citing Rivers’ extraordinary technique on tenor, soprano and flute, the support of Holland and Altschul, and the enthusiastic audience response. Undoubtedly, such an endorsement by the authoritative Polillo helped pave the way for Rivers to tour Italy every year for the remainder of the decade, and beyond.

In addition to Crystals, Impulse issued three samplers in 1974 that included excerpts from Streams, the ’73 Molde concert, and a ‘73 Yale University concert with McBee and Altschul (the latter concert forming the bulk of the initial LP version of Hues, issued in early ‘75), reinforcing Rivers’ stock with the label – and, presumably, the press. Given a monthly’s production schedule, it is safe to say that Crystals was immediately assigned by Down Beat for review upon release; and given the longer turnaround required for a feature article, it is also safe to say that Palmer’s feature was assigned for the February 1975 Down Beat when the November issue containing Bill Adler’s superlative-studded 4-star review of Crystals was in production or just hitting the racks.

“Sam Rivers: An Artist On An Empty Stage” is significant not only because it was the magazine’s first-ever feature about Rivers but because it was written by Palmer, who, by then, was a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and the first fulltime rock critic for The New York Times. Even though these were publications not renowned for its advocacy of avant-garde jazz, its practitioners respected Palmer, particularly after he accompanied Ornette Coleman to Morocco in 1973 and, with William S. Burroughs looking on, played clarinet with Coleman and the Master Musicians of Jajouka (an excerpt was included on Coleman’s 1977 Dancing in Your Head).Most importantly, Palmer regularly spoke truth to power, if only through reporting artists’ critiques of the jazz establishment: “Rivers feels that the press, and down beat in particular, have been remiss in failing to chronicle his activities [the magazine then used bold type and did not use capital letters when referencing itself].” The unstated case in point: Down Beat did not review Streams.

Ordinarily, record companies seize upon an article like Palmer’s, which not only detailed Rivers’ activities to date, but left the reader with the authoritative impression that this was Rivers’ time. But, Impulse was in upheaval, with Backer leaving before the release of Crystals to ramp up Arista’s jazz line. In a deteriorating climate, Michel could only bundle unused tracks from the Yale and Molde concerts to get Hues to market before the ax came down on him in 1975. Just at the moment when another year of big bold projects and well-executed marketing by Impulse would have dovetailed with the ascent of Studio Rivbea and his rising stock in Europe, Rivers’ relationship with the

[the conclusion of this article will appear in the December issue]

> back to contents