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The Boston Phoenix Big-Band Bop

Sam Rivers's "Inspiration"

By Ed Hazell

AUGUST 2, 1999:  With Inspiration (RCA), his first big-band recording on an American label in 25 years, composer/saxophonist Sam Rivers achieves a grand synthesis of the orchestral jazz writing of the past half-century. He intermingles bebop balladry, free-jazz fire, and contemporary rock and funk rhythms with traditional swing and Latin beats in works that showcase an impressive band of New York jazz musicians. It's an all-encompassing statement from a man who can embrace the music of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis as easily as he can that of Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton (all four of whom he's worked with), and whose improvisational skills complement a fertile composer's imagination. A second volume of big-band music, Culmination, is due in September.

The 17-member-strong Rivbea All-Star Orchestra -- with saxophonists Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, and Hamiet Bluiett; trumpeters Baikida Carroll and James Zollar; trombonists Ray Anderson, Joseph Bowie, and Art Baron; tuba player Bob Stewart; and Rivers's trio mates bassist Doug Mathews and drummer Anthony Cole -- comes at you like a charging elephant on the opening "Vines." The full ensemble blasts out massive chords that burst into a full-band improvisation, which then caroms into a mammoth vamp with two countermelodies entwined between tumbling chords. Then each member of the band solos in turn with the orchestra weighing in behind him. The chords, richly colored and dense, are bright and edgy one time, dark and bitter the next.

"Vines" and ""Rejuvenation" are built around one chord, but Rivers juggles color, density, and rhythm so expertly that the results are never monotonous. "Beatrice" and "Solace," two compositions dedicated to his wife of 50 years, are conventional in the sense that they have chord changes, but Rivers doesn't treat them conventionally. He weaves no fewer than a dozen themes into "Beatrice," introducing a new one as each soloist steps forward and recapitulating all of them in a beautifully orchestrated finale. Even the atonal compositions, "Nebula" and "Whirlwind," are so rich in melodies that you barely notice the lack of conventional song structure.

Rivers maintains that each of the album's seven pieces is meant to last for 50 minutes -- which explains why some of the writing sounds a bit crowded. The condensed format also leaves frustratingly little time for each soloist: sometimes they're just getting started before they have to make way for the next man. But Rivers, who plays flute and piano in addition to tenor and soprano saxes, remains a master of orchestral writing for jazz soloists, and his vision is one of the most bracing and catholic in modern music.

He began composing during his formative years in Boston, from the late '40s, when he studied at Boston Conservatory, until 1964, when he joined Miles Davis. "Every now and then I'd go out on tour with blues men like T-Bone Walker, Maxine Brown, Jerry Butler, and I was writing for them," the 75-year-old Rivers recalls over the phone from his home near Orlando. "By the early '60s, I was writing things for my own band, which included pianist Hal Galper and Tony Williams. We played in a Harvard Square coffee shop every weekend for years. When I moved to New York, in 1964, I had more than 50 compositions with me, and I wanted to start a jazz orchestra. I found a lot of musicians; they were all avant-garde musicians and they weren't working anyway, so we started rehearsing thrice weekly at a place up on 137th Street in Harlem, and then at Rivbea [the new music loft that Rivers operated for most of the '70s]. Most of the people on Inspiration I've known for 20, 30 years, since that period."

For all its modern sophistication, Inspiration is old-fashioned in important ways; the written material serves mainly as a backdrop for soloists, and some of it is propelled by a quite danceable beat. "It's an outlet for improvisers. I like to write and I could write it all out, but then I'd be worried whether it would be jazz. Jazz depends on improvisers, so I give everyone a solo. I can swing, so why should I leave out a part of my heritage, my experience? I can play the blues, I have been in bebop bands, symphonies. I like to bring out all these experiences. I like funk, too. It reaches the body and I'm trying for that, but I want to create interesting music, too. I want people to like it, to enjoy it. There was a point in my career when I forgot that if you want to get your message across, you don't say it once and keep going. You have to keep going back to that message and stating that theme. It's a blues kind of thing. The thing is to write something that you can appreciate and feel good about and everyone else can enjoy."

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