Sam Rivers' Fuchsia Swing Song on Blue Note45

One of the things I admire most about the folks at Music Matters Jazz—the audiophile house that reissues classic Blue Note albums at 45rpm, the tracks spreads out on two slabs of 180gm virgin vinyl, tucked inside handsome gatefold covers—is that they focus on the label's later avant-garde titles as well as on its earlier hard-bop chestnuts. Highlights in that realm to date: Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, and Jackie McLean's Destination Out.

Now add to this list of treasures Sam Rivers' Fuchsia Swing Song.

All four of those albums were recorded in 1963–64, a fertile (if commercially declining) era for jazz, when the most creative young musicians were grappling with how to fuse Ornette Coleman's "free" revolution with the harmonic rigors of Charlie Parker's earlier bebop revolution (which they'd only just begun to master) and imbue it all into a voice of their own. (Miles Davis was moving into this territory in those years too.)

Fuchsia Swing Song was Rivers' debut album. He was 34 at the time (the same age as Coleman and also Sonny Rollins, who was wrestling with the same problem). By today's standards, or compared with many of Rivers' later albums, it's not so stratospheric. As a tenor saxophonist and a composer, he was experimenting with staggered rhythms, inverted chords, and odd intervals, but his music—he wrote all the tunes on the album—is melodic, and some of it is gorgeous.

Take his love ballad, "Beatrice," which was dedicated to his wife. Stan Getz recorded this song 25 years later (on Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions, a great album, which stayed in the vaults for another decade-and-a-half), and it came off as upbeat and romantic. In Rivers' hands, it's languorous and sensuous: less polka dots and moonbeams than ruffled sheets and sweat. It's not that Rivers blows harder or higher; in fact, it's his looser embouchure, his shuffling through a triplet with a languorous intensity, seemingly casual but fastidiously systematic.

It's also the band, one of Blue Note's best: Jaki Byard, sounding the chord clusters on piano, Ron Carter twisting the anchor on bass, and, above all, Tony Williams on drums, just 19 and amazingly attentive, egging or picking up on the slightest tilt in accent or mood, shifting not just beats but beats within beats, the subtlest layers of subterranean rhythm. (Carter and Williams were just starting to play with Miles' new quintet around this time.)

Rudy Van Gelder's sound is stunning, especially Williams' drumkit: explosive dynamics, wafting bushels of air. Rivers' horn, replete with brass and reed; Carter's bass, a little submerged in the mix but the pluck and wood overtones clear and swaying; Byard's piano, a bit hooded, but less so than on some Blue Notes. In any case, compared with earlier reissues, including the Mosaic box-set of Rivers albums, it's wondrous.

jazzfan's picture

Thank you Fred for calling attention one of jazz's true unsung giants. Sam Rivers will be 88 this September and he is still going strong and sounding as wondrous as ever.

By the way, Joe Henderson's version of "Beatrice" from the State of the Tenor sessions is not too shabby either.