Sam Rivers/Dave Holland/Barry Altschul

Reunion: Live in New York
Pi Recording 45

Memento of a storied Free Jazz trio and now memorial to one of its members who has passed, Reunion: Live in New York captures the first concert in a quarter century by reedist Sam Rivers, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul. Rivers’ unit of choice from 1972-1978, after the trio dissolved each of the men went on to pursue his own projects, most spectacularly Holland whose large and small group have positioned him as one of the few major Jazz festival favorites still trying to create memorable work.

Altschul’s story was more problematic. Saddled with a habit and bouncing back and forth from Europe to the U.S., he didn’t fully come into his own again until 21st Century collaborations with the likes of bassist Joe Fonda and saxophonist Jon Irabagon. As for Rivers (1923-2011), after numerous large and group sessions from his New York base, he moved to Orlando in the early 1990s, continued to tour with a trio of other multi-instrumentalists and died there at 88.

These two CDs of unbridled improv were recorded when Rivers was a mere 83, Altschul, 64 and Holland, 61. It’s silly to say that the three played like much younger men; they didn’t, nor did they aim for that dubious claim. The five selections that make up the first set on CD1 and the subsequent four on CD2’s second set are uniformly low-key. The dexterous improvisations are sympathetically compressed into related sections, but none of the players indulge in unnecessary bravado. Nonetheless, what’s most notable is how mainstream the trio’s work sounds. Unless your concepts are pre-1960, yesterday’s avant-garde is today’s contemporary sound.

Playing almost continuously the tunes balance on Holland’s slippery-sliding combination of low-end pumps with arching bow scrubs, plus Altschul’s extended cymbal splashes, bass drum accents and chromatic beat. Meanwhile Rivers works out theme variations with particular strategies on tenor or soprano saxophones, flute or piano. Full-bodied and with a moderated tone, Rivers uses the saxophones to spread thematic variations with infrequent tongue slurps or altissimo cries goosing the exposition. On flute, more frequently on show during the second set, his playing is again bifurcated: half lyrical piping and half verbalized tones alongside the instrument’s lower pitches.

Fascinatingly enough, it’s Rivers’ piano playing which is most standardized, as when he turns to the keyboard during “Part 3” on disc one. Mixing cascading chords and sympathetic glissandi, he could be working one of the nightclub gigs he had during the 1950s when he lived in Boston. The drummer’s rubato accompaniment, featuring extended press rolls and bass drum thumps adds to this impression. And while Holland’s a capella, double-timed and near-rasgueado bass solo is more modern, taken together the three could be emulating the original Ahmad Jamal trio. Of course that illusion is shattered immediately afterwards as Rivers harmonizes pinched and shallow soprano runs with Holland’s low-pitched walking. But the relaxed interface is maintained throughout both discs.

Most noteworthy on the second set is how Altschul manages to replicate kettle-drum timbres in his accompaniment, especially when paired with the bassist’s subterranean string rubs. Generally though, except for some flute tangents, most of the sonic real estate is given over to Rivers tenor saxophone explorations. Melodic when need be, but more usually concerned with convoluting the lines, his story telling encompasses Bop-like reed bites, Swing Era vamps, Energy Music tongue-twisting, using tones that move from encrusted stops to spluttering tones and theme variations; probably one-eighth Rollins, one-eighth Trane and three-quarters Rivers. Holland’s answering string thwacks and Altschul pops, rolls and unexpected wood block accents co perfectly complement this display.

A last hurrah for a well-remembered combo; proof that Jazz evolves whether acknowledged by the mainstream or not; and yet more substantiation that age is just a number when it comes to grizzled Free Jazzers; Reunion: Live in New York does everyone proud.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Part 1 2. Part 2 3. Part 3 4. Part 4 5. Part 5 CD2: 1.Part 1 2. Part 2 3. Part 3 4. Part 4

Personnel: Sam Rivers (tenor and soprano saxophones, flute and piano); Dave Holland (bass) and Barry Altschul (drums)