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Album Review

Prior to Inspiration, Sam Rivers hadn't recorded for a major label in nearly 20 years, and he hadn't cut a studio session in two decades. That doesn't mean he was inactive; he was teaching, playing, and giving concerts but never recording. Aware that many of Rivers' big-band compositions — not only his recent material, but some earlier works as well — had never been given the proper treatment, saxophonist Steve Coleman helped arrange a recording contract with BMG, with the end result being the astonishing Inspiration album. The compositions on Inspiration are as old as 1968's "Beatrice" and as new as 1995's "Solace" (incidentally, both of those pieces are tributes to his wife Beatrice, who also provides half of the name of the featured big band, the Rivbea All-Star Orchestra). Remarkably, all of the compositions not only sound fresh, they sound visionary — still ahead of their time. It's not only because the stellar musicians give vibrant, unpredictable performances, although that undeniably helps; Rivers' writing is the real key. His writing for big band is utterly original, blending big-band, bop, and avant-garde traditions together in unique, surprising ways. The dissonance never sounds irritating — it sounds melodic — and the complex themes are strangely inviting. Similarly, Rivers' playing is robust, swinging between intense bursts of sound and beautiful lyricism, and sometimes combining it all at once. His 16 colleagues — including such luminaries as Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Chico Freeman, and Ray Anderson — follow suit, delivering wonderfully shaded, invigorating performances. Inspiration truly is a revelation, proving not only that Rivers retains all his creative power at the age of 75, but that avant-garde jazz can be as inviting as any other style without sacrificing any of its depth or daring.


Born: September 25, 1923 in El Reno, OK

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Few, if any, free jazz saxophonists approached music with the same degree of intellectual rigor as Sam Rivers; just as few have managed to maintain a high level of creativity over a long life. Rivers played with remarkable technical precision and a manifest knowledge of his materials. His sound was hard and extraordinarily well-centered, his articulation sharp, and his command of the tenor saxophone complete. Rivers' playing sometimes had an unremitting seriousness that could be extremely demanding,...
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