Sam Rivers had the perfect last name. He made music that could flow endlessly with self-sufficient power, like rain that falls from the sky, fills an ocean, trickles through the continent, and empties into a gulf before returning to the ocean. Reviewing an album like Reunion: Live in New York is like reviewing an actual river. I would have to take notes on how the water moves around the rocks. Would I recommend this body of water to a friend and if so, why? Who the hell would want to read that? If you have most of your senses working, you know what a river sounds, looks, smells, feels (and…tastes?) like. You could discuss it scientifically, but then you would have to reevaluate your reasons for wading in the water, or picking up a Sam Rivers album, in the first place.
Saxophonist Sam Rivers, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Barry Altschul had an unusual relationship. They were known for being such a great trio yet recorded evidence of their chemistry is few and far between. In fact, when you see the word Reunion in the title, it isn’t a bunch of nostalgic bullcrap. It’s 25 years of procrastination followed by a night of not playing the “hits”. When Rivers, Holland and Altschul finally made time in their schedules to do this show at Columbia in 2007, they planned nothing. Nothing from Contours, nothing from Conference of the Birds, just eighty-plus minutes of improvisation. The music is divided into five tracks on the first CD and four tracks on the second, all of which are untitled. And as per jazz tradition, the recordings sat around for about five years and weren’t released until after Rivers’ death.
And when someone uses the word “free” in the context of Sam Rivers, it’s not the crazy kind. It’s the anything-is-possible kind. It’s the do-what-you-feel-because-why-not? kind. The three musicians have a conversation, not a shouting match. The conversation is so smooth that you might not even notice that the star of the show plays four instruments. Rivers’ transition from alto sax, to piano, to soprano sax to flute is so smooth that even I didn’t notice. It wasn’t until after the piano had been playing for a few minutes that I thought “wait, who is the piano player at this date?” Barry Altschul can probably do a month-long drum solo if someone met him. But the amount of restraint showed by the trio is something to behold. Their drop in dynamics and shift in mood happens with no grand gesture. It just happens in purest sense that improvised music will allow.
Though Rivers, Holland, Altschul, and Pi Recordings have put together one of the purest jazz albums of the year - all music, no pretensions - I feel like they cinched that title just by showing up. Bearers of the post-bop flame would gladly miss the birth of their first born if it meant seeing these three guys play together one more time. But we can’t let all that legendary stuff get in our way. With Sam Rivers gone and David S. Ware’s recent passing, we may see fewer albums like this in the future; ones that you put on and they just play for you. It’s all energy and no fuss. I’m not saying there won’t be artists who would do this down the road, but a certain chapter is coming to a close, just as it’s designed to do.
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