Sam Rivers, Crushing Fist

Thoughts turn again to the vexing question of compiling a definitive list of favourite record treasures. As free jazz gems go, a candidate for inclusion on any ´best of' list would have to be Sam Rivers, and foremost among his always compelling output is a colossus of a record, which should be celebrated in more column inches, but is hideously out of print at present. The best jazz is on Impulse!, as the saying goes, and the proof is between the covers of my gatefold Japanese CD copy of the Impulse! ´Streams', which boasts one of the most impressive record covers of all time. Sam and his horn, photographed in brilliant sunlight, against a whitewashed section of imposing architecture. Wearing an impeccably tasteful shirt beneath a beautifully tailored, well-weathered suede jacket, he looks unapologetically away from the camera's gaze, absorbed in a stream of consciousness which would find tumultuous expression in the grooves of the record itself.

Rivers is a man whose energies are periodically, and inspiringly, renewed in torrential fashion. The take-no-prisoners attitude found on the cover of ´Streams' is matched by the music. Recorded live in the early 1970s at Montreux, with a heavy-hitting band of faithful collaborators (Cecil McBee bass, Norman Connors on drums, feel the quality!), it showcases Rivers' mastery of a number of instruments, including saxes and incendiary flute. The cumulative effect of the shattering ensemble is to create an ebb and flow which builds towards an outpouring which would be the trademark of Rivers' rich writing style. Culmination and consummation, in equal proportion.

Rivers is a man immersed in his time, yet able to see beyond the narrow horizons of genre or labeling. A loft scene regular in the New York scene of the 1960s, he was one of the wildest of the wildflowers who shook the timbers of many a top floor stage space. Sowing the seeds of musical advancement, sketching out grand designs, lighting the touch-paper for a creative synthesis he would develop decades later at his own pace in the orchestral settings of the Rivbea group, in unison with his wife Beatrice. Still today it's Rivers who is present in the creative ferment generated by young bucks and pacesetters, taking his place in tightly knit units which show that the impulses behind free music are still powerful and focussed on steering towards new territories and away from cliché.

A great example would be the ´Fluid Motion' ensemble, established by David Manson, with its forceful invigoration of its quintet base. There's energy aplenty here, surging through the coruscating lines emerging from the compositions. Sam Rivers on tenor and soprano saxes plays a pivotal role, of course, in centering the music, a force of nature around which his fellow players gravitate and fire out their distinctive licks and textures.

´Pengquan' is a telling title, and it sums up the energy and focus of the team of players. It literally means ´crushing fist' in the art of Xingyiquan, Five Element Boxing. Borrowing its concepts from the ancient Chinese theory of the Five Elements, it is pictured as an arrow hitting its target. Rivers and co galvanize the force of Pengquan, showing how brass (trumpet and saxes) and wood (drumsticks on skins) spark a conflagration in sound. There are moments on ´Tephlon' which call to mind Rivers' contribution on Dave Holland's ECM magnum opus ´Conference of the Birds', with its keen early morning atmosphere of sharpened minds and shards of nail-file rigour. Holland and Braxton's achievement was more algebra or Chinese arithmetic, but here Manson's group impresses with an organic sense of harmonic balance and vigour. They approach their material with an angular logic, trading contributions and shifting emphasis so that five instruments appear more varied than that, and the timbres achieve a polyphonic expansiveness. How much this is due to Rivers' majestic presence is a matter for speculation, but there is no doubt that David Manson's intuitive understanding of dynamics and small unit structures should take equal credit. In addition to playing trombone on the record, he also composed each of the pieces, which offer a variety of moods and themes, snaking along with relentless purpose.

Trombone-based jazz records are a rare thing nowadays, so it's exciting to see the instrument taking its place here amongst its more exalted confr▓res. Totally suited to this level of free playing, the trombone scrapes, blows and fractures any tendency to smooth formulas. The best players put the bone back in trombone. If I haven't emphasised its importance in the free jazz fraternity of instruments enough elsewhere, I'll say it again. You haven't lived until you've put down the needle on a blast of Roswell Rudd's cantankerous trombone belligerence. While we're on the subject, record number two in a putative all-time favourite list would be the Enrico Rava Quartet's eponymous ECM album, a tour de force of rawhide free jazz, head ´em up, move ´em out. Manfred Eicher should have marketed it with a free Frankie Laine-style whip. Fusion is a swear word in my book, but Rava and Rudd really work towards some kind of fusion of Italianate architectural elegance (a sublime cover of ´Round Midnight') and the primitive origins of jazz as complete communion (´Lavori Casalinghi', or ´Housework': I do the hoovering to this one...)

If such a thing as a Campaign for Real Jazz existed, the ´Fluid Motion' set would be a spearhead for the movement. Not that I'm suggesting any conservative leanings towards woolly beards and woollier philosophizing here, but the record boasts a purity of line and construction that speaks directly to the listener eager to regain the throb of excitement lacking in corporate packages of jazz as a lifestyle or label. One of the pieces on the record is aptly titled ´Tangents', and it shares with the pages of this zine a concern with plotting free associations, fighting against the grain of linear conformity. The group meanders and lays out a trail of colours which evoke suppleness and mystery, muscular tension and fluent passing movements.

Young trumpeter Jonathan Powell has a field day on this recording, reminding me of the spitfire exuberance found on ´Introducing Lee Morgan' and contrasting impishly with the wiseacre Rivers. He also manages to push his playing into a world-weary tempo which lulls things to a contemplative hiatus later on ´Whispers'. But take it to Rivers we should. In his seventies he plays with the gusto of a man able to renew his vision by staying true to his youthful credos. Having seen many of his generation falter and succumb to addictions and periodic fallow periods, Rivers suggests nothing less than an expanse of crawling, sometimes overflowing, waters after which he is named. The water is wide, and this old man Rivers knows the secrets held within its streams. Love Streams, as Cassavetes put it. I'm sure he still wears his dark brown suede jacket with fierce pride, an example to all who attempt to fathom his depths or follow his unbending path of resolute multi-instrumental improvisation.

© 2003 Marino Guida

For more information on the Fluid Motion CD, visit