One of the strongest signs that the jazz mainstream is now undergoing a much-needed changing of the guard was last year’s major-label release of Inspiration by saxophonist, flutist, and composer Sam Rivers. After nearly 40 years of both expanding post-bop’s improvisational possibilities and giving free jazz the compositional acumen it deserves, Rivers’ contributions still go criminally under-recognized. Even after Inspiration’s surprising Grammy nomination, he’s still awkwardly left to toot his own horn, so to speak, about his musical career; I mean, jeez, the guy has played with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, T-Bone Walker, and Dizzy Gillespie; and he played a pivotal role in spearheading New York’s loft jazz scene in the ’70s. At a recent duet performance with his longtime drummer, Anthony Cole, at New York’s Lincoln Center, Rivers openly questioned why he’s constantly left out of the critics’ polls by such tastemakers as Down Beat magazine. Following this brief, personal PSA, Rivers joyfully demonstrated that, at 76, he’s still one of the baddest motherfuckers on the soprano and tenor saxophones.
For those who slept through Inspiration, RCA is now releasing Culmination, which was recorded during the same sessions. The complex designs and poignancy of both recordings reveal how influential Rivers is on fellow forward-thinking saxophonist Steve Coleman, who produced both albums. Coleman’s interlocking polyrhythms and orchestral sweeps from the latest incarnations of his M-Base albums sound like direct descendants of some of Rivers’ Impulse! albums, like 1971’s Hues and 1974’s Crystals. Both Rivers and Coleman have composed nearly indestructible songbooks.
In a recent NPR tribute to Rivers, Herbie Hancock succinctly said that when Rivers joined Miles Davis for a stint in 1964, “[he] looked all bone and muscle. And his playing had that kind of energy.” The statement was right on the mark: The strength in Rivers’ saxophone playing lies in its flexible tones and rhythms. He’s never been known to produce burly tones like those of John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, but his incisive playing can rip through the largest of ensembles. Even when the ensemble is as brass-heavy as his Rivbea All-Star Orchestra (six saxophones, four trumpets, three trombones, one baritone horn, and one tuba), the music’s rhythm stays lean. Cole underpins the chiaroscuro of sound with skintight grooves, while bassist Doug Mathews lubricates the angular arrangements with slippery vamps.
Rivers’ weblike compositions on Culmination always sound as if they’re in constant evolution, with seemingly endless strata of unpredictable rhythmic motifs weaving throughout; the music practically forces the musicians to succumb to Rivers’ compositional matrix and forgo their individual stylings. The heavy traffic of varying thematic statements certainly doesn’t offer much room for ego-driven solos—which is ironic, because throughout all the extended compositions, someone is always soloing.
With all the multicounterpoints ricocheting back and forth on songs like “Spectrum,” “Bubbles,” and “Neptune,” and the blitzing solos dancing on top, the composition is so dense as to sometimes be impenetrable. Which is a problem, because the orchestra contains some of the most singular voices in jazz today. The roadhouse boogie in Hamiet Bluiett’s colossal baritone saxophone, alongside the smearing vocalizations of trombonists Ray Anderson and Joseph Bowie, manages to overcome the orchestra’s irrepressible force, but the trumpeters and saxophonists sound mostly interchangeable. Sometimes Rivers distinguishes his own playing simply by being the only one on soprano and flute. The nervy energy eases up a bit on the Latin-tinged ballad “Ripples,” allowing the listener to focus more on the beauty of all the individual soloists.Culmination is a worthy listen, especially for those novices not clued in to Rivers’ overlooked ingenuity.
In the wake of Rivers’ resurgent popularity comes another neglected jazz icon who’s very likely to make a significant comeback: pianist Andrew Hill, whose new album, Dusk, marks his first studio recording in 10 years. Earlier this year, Hill resurfaced in a rare appearance as a sideman on Greg Osby’s sumptuous The Invisible Hand. Like Rivers, Hill was one of the more adventurous musicians in Blue Note’s celebrated ’60s stable, with music that always escaped easy categorization.
On the same night as Rivers’ duet performance with Cole at the Lincoln Center, Hill performed a rousing duet with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. As Hill unfurled his signature series of speechlike phrases, it was evident that a decade away from the studio hadn’t diminished his rhythmic and harmonic resourcefulness. Without delving into sentimentality, Hill and Hutcherson played with passion and whimsy, as Hill does on Dusk.
Given jazz’s current fetish for past glories, which often rivals its desire to come up with something innovative, it would have been easy for Hill to make a comeback that sounds like his ’60s innovations. But one listen to the opening title track reveals that Hill had no intentions of reliving the past. Although Hill revisits “Ball Square” and “Tough Love,” songs that have long been in his repertoire, the album evokes a late-’90s downtown-scene sensibility.
On the opener—the title track—Hill wanders ever so elusively beneath Scott Colley’s prowling bass figure. At first, the sparseness of Hill’s playing disappears in the lopsided melody of the three-horn section and Colley’s harmonically rich counterpoint. But as soon as he takes center stage for a brief solo, his sudden bursts of melodic light burn in. As fissured as Hill’s playing can be, it’s amazing how utterly conversational it sounds—owing mainly to his compositional technique of recording casually spoken conversations and then mimicking the spoken cadences with his playing. After the chamberlike intro on “ML,” Hill’s softly dropped accompaniment actually sounds like someone sobbing, while Marty Ehrlich intensifies the deep lament with an alto saxophone solo. At other times, Hill’s playing is a big hoot, as in the whimsical “Ball Square,” wherein he hammers out a series of childlike broken phrases. The haunting “Tough Love,” however, captures Hill at his most poignant; he takes the bittersweet waltz at a deadly slow pace. Though the melody sounds both harmonically and rhythmically jarring, it bears Hill’s signature elasticity and loveliness, which make his most thorny compositions sound astonishingly romantic.
Much of Dusk’s allure comes not only from Hill’s playing and arrangements, but also from his responsive ensemble. The horn section of alto saxophonist Ehrlich, tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy, and trumpeter Ron Horton gives Hill’s yearning melodies their lushness, especially on the flamenco-inflected “Sept” and the suspenseful “15/8.” Colley’s ghostly bass lines and melodic richness thicken the crushed-velvet textures of the horn section. The tricky time signatures and rhythm patterns of Hill’s compositions would have many drummers tripping over themselves, but not Billy Drummond, who’s magnificent in his ability to sustain momentum while also engaging in the collective improvisations. Together, they animate Hill’s barbed rhythms and plaintive melodies with elan.
With just the right amount of media attention and a carefully planned performance schedule, Dusk could very well prove as pivotal in Hill’s career as his 1964 classic, Point of Departure—especially in these optimistic times, when what was once considered jazz’s avant-garde is now becoming its new vanguard. CP