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Jazz - Released January 24, 2014 | ECM

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Jazz - Released January 1, 1967 | CM BLUE NOTE (A92)

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Jazz - Released January 1, 1965 | Blue Note Records

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Recorded in 1964 immediately after leaving the Miles Davis Quintet, Sam Rivers' Fuchsia Swing Song is one of the more auspicious debuts the label released in the mid-'60s. Rivers was a seasoned session player (his excellent work on Larry Young's Into Somethin' is a case in point), and a former member of Herb Pomeroy's Big Band before he went out with Davis. By the time of his debut, Rivers had been deep under the influence of Coltrane and Coleman, but wasn't willing to give up the blues. Hence the sound on Fuchsia Swing Song is that of an artist at once self-assured and in transition. Using a rhythm section that included Tony Williams (whose Life Time he had guested on), pianist Jaki Byard, and bassist Ron Carter, Rivers took the hard bop and blues of his roots and poured them through the avant-garde collander. The title, opening track is a case in point. Rivers opens with an angular figure that is quickly translated by the band into sweeping, bopping blues. Rivers legato is lightning quick and his phrasing touches upon Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Coleman, and Coltrane, but his embouchure is his own. He strikes the balance and then takes off on both sides of the aisle. Byard's builds in minor key, rhythmic figures just behind the tenor. "Downstairs Blues Upstairs" sounds, initially anyway, like it might have come out of the Davis book so deep is its blue root. But courtesy of Byard and Williams, Rivers goes to the left after only four choruses, moving onto the ledge a bit at a time, running knotty arpeggios through the center of the melody and increasingly bending his notes into succeeding intervals while shifting keys and times signatures, but he never goes completely over the ledge. The most difficult cut on the date is "Luminous Monolith," showcases a swing-like figure introducing the melody. Eight bars in, the syncopation of the rhythm sections begins to stutter step around the time, as Byard makes harmonic adjustments with dense chords for Rivers to play off. This is a highly recommended date. Other than on 1965's Contours, Rivers never played quite like this again. ~ Thom Jurek
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Jazz - Released October 11, 1966 | CM BLUE NOTE (A92)

The title of A New Conception refers to Sam Rivers' ingenious interpretations of standards on this record. Rivers treats the songs -- such familiar items as "When I Fall in Love," "I'll Never Smile Again," "That's All," "What a Difference a Day Makes," and "Secret Love" -- with respect, but he doesn't treat them as museum pieces. He knows that if the songs are to remain fresh, they need to be heard in different ways, and he skillfully opens up each composition to contemporary avant-garde techniques. Rivers and his supporting trio of pianist Hal Galper, bassist Herbert Lewis, and drummer Steve Ellington gradually ease each number into more adventurous territory, slowly shifting into exploratory instrumental sections, slyly varying the melodic themes, or adding shaded dissonant textures. It's challenging music that remains accessible, since it reconfigures familiar items in new, intriguing ways. The sheer skill in Rivers' arrangements once again confirms his large, unfortunately underappreciated, talent. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Jazz - Released January 1, 1967 | Blue Note Records

On Contours, his second Blue Note album, tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers fully embraced the avant-garde, but presented his music in a way that wouldn't be upsetting or confusing to hard bop loyalists. Rivers leads a quintet featuring trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Joe Chambers through a set of originals that walk a fine line between probing, contemplative post-bop and densely dissonant avant-jazz. Each musician is able to play the extremes equally well while remaining sensitive to the compositional subtleties. Rarely is Contours anything less than enthralling, and it remains one of the high watermarks of the mid-'60s avant-garde movement. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Jazz - Released January 1, 2001 | Blue Note Records

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Jazz - Released January 1, 1974 | Impulse!

When Sam Rivers' Crystals was released in 1974, it had been over a decade since Ornette had worked with his Free Jazz Double Quartet, nine years since Coltrane assembled his Ascension band, and six since the first Jazz Composers' Orchestra Association was formed and whose first records were issued (a couple of members of that band also perform with Rivers here). It's difficult to note in the 21st century just how forward-thinking this avant-garde big band was, and how completely innovative Rivers' compositions are. The number of musicians on this session is staggering: With Rivers, it numbers 64 pieces! A few of the names appearing here are Hamiet Bluiett, Richard Davis, Bob Stewart, John Stubblefield, Bill Barron, Robin Kenyatta, Julius Watkins, Norman Connors, Andrew Cyrille, Billy Hart, Ahmed Abdullah, Charles Sullivan, Clifford Thornton, Grachan Moncur, Ronnie Boykins, and Reggie Workman -- and no pianist. Musically, this is the mature Sam Rivers speaking from the wide base of his knowledge as a composer, improviser, and conceptualist. These compositions were written between 1959 and 1972, and were finished as new elements came to him to fit them together conceptually. The fact that all six of them are so gorgeously juxtaposed is a testament to his discipline and his vision. From the beginning of "Exultation," the horns storm out of the gate, saxophones up front in what appears to be full free jazz freakout. Trumpets and trombones bleat behind, and the bass violins bow in unison on a modal opening. Within minutes, however, the rhythm section kicks in, and a full-on swinging soprano solo accompanied by the stomping bass of Workman fills the center for about 40 bars until the entire band comes back for a restated them that is knotty yet swinging. A number of instruments then jump through the center of the piece, creating an intervallic dialogue that prompts the soloists to come back in and take it. The intervals and contrapuntal structures are subtle enough to avoid seams -- though the jagged edges in the solos provide dense and beautiful textures -- and when the whole band comes back in, one doesn't notice that they are all grooving in a whole new rhythmic situation that is full of stops, starts, and sideways maneuvers. On "Tranquility," the bassist lays down a syncopated funk groove and long, drifting melodic lines that are written out comes flowing in between the bass and Stewart's tuba. They shimmer around each other in harmonic dissonance, though with the dynamics controlled, the edges are rounded. Rivers has written some of the most complex music of his life here, allowing for short, poignant, and often strictly composed solos to complement the linear, contrapuntal structures that these towering compositions are. As soloists do give way to one another, it is remarkable that the sheer density of hard swing provides the center of the maelstrom with such a wide emotional and chromatic palette. This is spiritual music in the most profound sense in that it attempts to breach the gyre between what has previously been said -- by Ellington, most notably -- what can be said, and the musically unspeakable. There is a massive centrifugal force at work in Rivers compositions here; and it pulls everything in, each dynamic stutter, legato phrase, ostinato whisper, and alteration in pitch in favor of what comes next. The swinging nature of these tunes refutes once and for all whether or not avant-garde music can be accessible -- -though it's true Sun Ra had already done that, but never to this extent. In sum, there are harsh moments here to be sure, but they are part of a greater and far more diverse musical universe, they are shards in the prism of the deep and burning soul that these six compositions offer so freely. Of the many recordings Rivers has done, this was the very first to showcase the full range of his many gifts. It is an underrated masterpiece and among the most rewarding and adventurous listening experiences in the history of jazz. Now that it is available on CD with pristine sound, you have no excuse. ~ Thom Jurek
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Jazz - Released January 1, 2008 | Blue Note Records

Ambitious, atonal, challenging -- all are accurate descriptions of Dimensions & Extensions, Sam Rivers' fourth album for Blue Note. Rivers remains grounded in hard bop structure, working with a sextet featuring Donald Byrd (trumpet), James Spaulding (alto saxophone, flute), Julian Priester (trombone), Cecil McBee (bass), and Steve Ellington (drums), but he explodes the boundaries of the form with difficult, dissonant compositions. With his unique, mercurial tone and edgy solos, he keeps pushing the sextet in different directions. It's intense, cerebral music, but since it has distinct themes and strong rhythms, the forays into free jazz, dissonant harmonies, and unpredictable tonal textures are actually quite accessible. Rivers simply burns on each track, whether playing tenor, soprano, or flute. Byrd doesn't display the wild imagination of Rivers, yet he keeps the pace with alternately languid and biting solos. Similarly, each of the remaining musicians makes a lasting impression with his individual time in the spotlight. With music as risky at this, it's forgivable that it occasionally meanders (especially on the slower numbers) but, overall, Dimensions & Extensions offers more proof that Sam Rivers was one of the early giants of the avant-garde. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Jazz - Released July 6, 1973 | CM BLUE NOTE (A92)

Since his final Blue Note session in 1967, Sam Rivers' music got freer and freer, as audiences were able to hear when he signed to Impulse at the beginning of the '70s. Streams was the recorded apex of his early-'70s move into full-fledged free jazz, a continuous 50-minute trio improvisation recorded live at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival. The music is pure stream-of-consciousness -- no discernible pre-set themes, just free-flowing ideas and interaction among the musicians (who also include bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Norman Connors). What's truly amazing about the set is that Rivers' streams of consciousness are more like, well, rivers. He draws from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh soloing ideas -- on four different instruments -- and his playing is busy and nearly continuous throughout, stopping only to switch instruments or punctuate his lines with an excited shout. The album's title refers to the way the different sections of Rivers' improvisation connect and flow into one another, but more impressive is the fact that there are so many sections in the first place. Rivers' tenor sax playing opens the album, and it's as potent a blend of the visceral and intellectual as usual. His rhythmically and harmonically adventurous flute work follows, then a section of angular piano somewhat indebted to Cecil Taylor; things wrap up with a high-energy soprano sax dialogue that features some fantastically driving, muscular work by McBee. He and Connors color in between Rivers' stunning overflow of ideas very effectively, pushing the leader wherever possible. It's a shame there aren't more documents of this phase in Rivers' career, though that could be said of pretty much all of his phases. If it's Rivers the free improviser you're looking for, Streams is a tour de force and one of the highlights of his extremely distinguished career. ~ Steve Huey
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Jazz - Released June 12, 2015 | Rivbea Music

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Jazz - Released January 1, 1965 | CM BLUE NOTE (A92)

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Jazz - Released April 2, 1999 | RCA Victor

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Jazz - Released March 22, 1999 | RCA Victor

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Jazz - Released August 22, 2015 | Rivbea Music

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Jazz - Released July 2, 2015 | Rivbea Music

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Jazz - Released June 17, 2015 | Rivbea Music

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Jazz - Released June 23, 2015 | Rivbea Music

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Jazz - Released July 2, 2015 | Rivbea Music

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Jazz - Released June 23, 2015 | Rivbea Music

Germany's FMP Records invited reed player Sam Rivers to perform in Berlin in 1995, and the results were released just over a year later on this CD. Rivers performs completely solo, with soprano and tenor saxophone plus flute and piano, and finds a distinctive voice on each instrument. His tenor style is hard-driving, while the soprano moments, and his remarkably clean flute playing, are atmospheric and free-flying. One foible may be Rivers' constant punctuation of his playing with vocal shouts, which might turn off listeners. ~ John Bush
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Jazz - Released June 23, 2015 | Rivbea Music