When Sam Rivers reunited his much-discussed trio in 2007, he hasnít played with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul in more than 20 years. There was a huge buzz surrounding the event, and it wasnít just the fans who were excited. The crowd assembled that evening at Columbia Universityís Miller Theater included some prominent musicians as well, all of them anticipating the one-off performance by one of the most consistently interesting trios of the 1970s. Pi Recordings gives us both sets from the auspicious event, tracked for easy negotiation but continuous in form.
The music is inspired and frustrating by turn. Take, for example, Hollandís stunning solo from the first set, a model of unity and diversity, not to mention some of the most energetic playing Iíve heard from him in years. It is symptomatic of the high level of virtuosic communication from all involved ó no surprise from these veteran improvisers who can shift in and out of groove, tonality and musical reference on the proverbial dime. They do just that, with Rivers tackling tenor, soprano, flute and piano as the group transforms from duo, to trio, to an aggregate of soloists, and then back again. Altschul is one of the most timbrally satisfying drummers since Rashied Ali and Tony Oxley, and he pulls out all the stops, especially in the second set, backing Rivers on flute and soloing as colorfully as anything from his Circle days. Rivers himself is a marvel of energy and invention, and to think that he was in his middle 80s when playing these long lines and quick-shod phrases boggles the brain.
So Ö why doesnít Reunion work? Why was I left cold during every listening? It seems to me that things simply did not gel that night. For whatever reason, the trio did not achieve the excitement and power they certainly mustered in the past. Everyone on stage was listening; we need only dig into the rapid-fire swing Holland and Altschul lay down in the second setís first half to understand that. There is contrast in abundance, and yet the music doesnít seem to scale the heights of concert recordings from the trioís heyday (that era is woefully underdocumented on disc). At its best, this trio could spin a tale from gorgeously spacious near-silence to extraordinary dynamic peaks, and that raw vitality is whatís missing here.
Reunion: Live in New York is a beautifully recorded testimony to three of this musicís finest proponents. There are gorgeous moments a-plenty, and the audience is obviously enthralled, respectful and enthusiastic. As a historical document, I canít quibble, but in listening again and again, I feel the weight of past accomplishment more than the thrill of discovery and innovation that other recent Rivers projects afford.