Sam Rivers and Dave Holland first recorded together on the esteemed bassist’s 1972 cornerstone of freebop, Conference Of The Birds – a must-own album by a one-time-only quartet and a telling session as far as artistic affinity goes. It’s there the pair’s magical rapport presented itself, and the musicians felt it, too. The bassist and reed player quickly became part of an insightful and ongoing trio with drummer Barry Altschul, and three years after Conference they were in a New York studio cutting extended duets that charged listeners with appreciating the flow of their excursions. Those dates, released on the Improvising Artists label and now rightly deemed iconic, helped cement a relationship that proved to be one of jazz’s most fruitful.
Contrasts, an oft overlooked entry in ECM’s ‘70s catalog, speaks to the power of flow as well. The album’s seven discrete pieces are individual statements that present singular moods, but this disc, made by a 1979 quartet that includes trombonist George Lewis and percussionist Thurman Barker, is best heard in one clip. Thanks to the depth of the teamwork, the program takes on a vibe of a suite. By the time one of these distinctive nuggets concludes, you’re curious about how the next will play out to amend the overall story line. The vignettes might move from tom-tom thuds and ‘bone smears to sax flurries and marimba forays, but Rivers’ aesthetic – which makes a case for linking motifs into a steady stream of ideas – is sated along the way. The up-tempo aggression of “Dazzle” has more impact when adjacent to the flute esprit of “Verve.” The opening swirls of “Circles” seems inextricably linked to the conclusionary “Lines.” Contrasts spotlights the way Rivers the bandleader viewed continuity as a performance staple – offering “one ongoing song,” as it were.
Rivers had cut something similar a year and a half earlier. The same group – with Joe Daley’s tuba rather than Lewis’ trombone – made the compelling Waves. But Contrasts is the richer album. The saxophonist was in his mid-50s at this point; he’d collected paychecks from Miles Davis, waxed important Blue Notes, and gained global kudos for that Altschul/Holland trio. His iconoclastic tendencies were bolstered by a lyricism flecked with a personalized blues argot. The evocative chirping on “Images,” the long tones that unfold on “Solace” – abstraction is the lay of the land here, but the music’s beauty is unmistakable. Getting to know Contrasts again through this reissue proves just how poised the saxophonist and his colleagues were as they brought their experimental concord to a wider audience.