Originally released in 1979, reissued now as part of a series from ECM, Contrasts by Sam Rivers features the great saxophonist across soprano and tenor (and flute) leading a band that includes Dave Holland on bass, Thurman Barker on drums and marimba and George Lewis on Trombone.
Rivers had appeared, briefly, as a sideman for Miles Davis before heading out as leader in 1964. He would return to work with others (Barry Altschul, Andrew Hill, Dave Holland, Bobby Hutcherson, Jason Moran) but it was the records under his own name where he was able to explore how free-jazz ideals could sit within the trio/quartet/small-combo framework.
Contrasts is a masterpiece, his debut for ECM, it starts with the call and response of Circles before settling down into a groove on Zip, Rivers’ sax flurrying as Barker drives the tunes forward. Their interplay, their connection, similar to how Coltrane and Elvin Jones would work together – busily underneath you hear and feel Holland supplying crucial building blocks of sound.
The jungle-waft of Solace has a soundtrack feel to it, Lewis’ trombone the star as it peeks out from the marimba lines.
And Verve coasts along on Barker’s funk backbeat as Rivers supplies the melody on the flute. Here we have a version of seventies jazz that seems so clearly off that era but doesn’t feel as dated as so much of the work from that time.
Images is another ballad-creeper, the soprano sax supplying the main thrust of this tune, the trombone adding accents, as much sound effects as anything – with the marimba providing an alluring texture.
And then the Eric Dolphy-like precision of Lines closes off this wonderful record – seven songs, all from the pen of Rivers. The music flowing through him. This album is a must if you’ve never heard it before, and a pleasure to revisit.