Sam Rivers – Contours (1965)

Sam Rivers, a veteran jazz multi-instrumentalist, was forty-two years old when he assembled this Blue Note LP, only his second as leader. Unlike his debut Fuchsia Swing Song (1964) which, while adventurous, was unmistakably hard-bop, his approach on Contours is resolutely avant garde and informed by new ideas in jazz and influences absorbed during his time at the Boston Conservatory, where he studied with Armenian-born composer Alan Hovhaness.

Many of the themes on this album resemble flat subway diagrams heavy with text where parallel coloured lines veer suddenly then abruptly unbind. Like Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, Rivers soloed manically outside the framework of the tune, but unlike Ascension-era Coltrane, never so far out that he couldn’t find a way back in with a brief recitation of a central motif or a rhythmic handle. Enlisting some of the leading progressive young jazz players of the era in Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Joe Chambers, the four pieces here are deftly and intelligently performed, in particular the hushed ‘Euterpe’ where Rivers plays with wonderful mysticism on flute and Hubbard’s muted trumpet is delicately evocative of sadness and solitude. Each soloist defines a terrain of peaks and valleys that occur naturally, the supporting band members sensitive to the flow of the performance; when to play with fire, when to lay out completely, when to build tension. Hancock and Carter brought what they were learning about elastic group dynamics playing with the Miles Davis Quintet (with Sam Rivers who had also been part of that line-up for a few months). The listener is most tested by ‘Dance of the Tripedal’, a tightly coiled jack-in-the-box that comes across like a demented waltz, its unbalanced 3/8 time signature creating a machine-like momentum. ‘Point of Many Returns’ alternates between rushed and restrained and features wildly fractured soprano-sax dissonance by Rivers followed by a brief unaccompanied bass solo that plunges the track into the abyss. Rivers returns to tenor-sax on ‘Mellifluous Cacophony’, a fiery updated version of be-bop. Hancock plays his solo mainly using his right hand without shaping chords with his left, a trick taught to him by Miles Davis. Joe Chambers takes a spacious solo to bring this serious-minded but totally absorbing album to a close. Experimental and analytical, but not to be feared.

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