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Jazz multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, who passed away at age 88 last December, recorded with many trios in the 1970s, but his most celebrated trio with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Atlschul was barely recorded at all. In 2007, they played a reunion concert, their first concert in 26 years. It's now out on CD. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's like they'd never gone away.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: In the '70s, saxophonist Sam Rivers recorded a lot with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul. Usually, one or two other musicians were involved, as on Holland's quartet classic "Conference of the Birds." The Rivers-Holland-Altschul trio toured a bunch, but made only two low-profile albums: "The Quest" and "Paragon," the latter never reissued.

Their new - well, 2007 - "Reunion: Live in New York" surpasses either of those oldies. Not that Rivers was playing at his peak at age 83, but the reunited trio confirms how varied and coherent free improvising can be. Their music's a reminder of why folks sometimes call playing free instant composing.


WHITEHEAD: Sam Rivers preached and practiced the idea that playing free meant free to include anything. You could play loud or quiet, lyrical or fragmented, tonal or atonal, flamenco or the blues. Dave Holland once called this trio his finishing school, but he had already found his voice as a very precise and prodding bass player.

He and the colorfully resourceful Barry Altschul on drums had already teamed up behind Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton and Paul Bley before joining Rivers. But with Sam, they perfected the art of setting up an improvising soloist.


WHITEHEAD: Improvising groups that play together a lot may develop informal routines, reliable ways to get the music moving. They may not discuss them. They just notice that they work. Rivers' trio is a prime example. Sam always milked the contrasts among his burly tenor and sinewy soprano sax, his sketchbook-y piano and willowy flute that could sound eerily like his speaking voice.

Holland and Altschul laid down all manner of supportive patterns for him to roam over - vamps and bridgework for all moods and tempos.


WHITEHEAD: Free jazz, like other kinds of jazz, has a history, and is free to reference the music's past, like Coltrane, the blues or the speech-like instrumental dialogues of Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. The Rivers trio took that practice to the next step: drawing the drummer into three-way conversations.


WHITEHEAD: Sam Rivers was one of those musicians who felt he never got his due, as a big band leader in Orlando late in life or as a hard core free player who'd also worked with Dizzy Gillespie, T-Bone Walker and briefly with Billie Holliday. He may have been right about the recognition, but this much is certain: Sam Rivers' '70s trios - this one, especially - pointed out a full range of possibilities to many freewheeling combos that came later.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Reunion: Live in New York" featuring the late jazz multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers on the Pi label. You can download podcasts of our show on our website,, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

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