Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The storyteller: Ronald Shannon Jackson

Right now my listening compass points to Ronald Shannon Jackson, specifically the Decoding Society LPs Mandance (’82) and Barbeque Dog (’83). Above you'll find a contemporary performance by the band, which then featured Vernon Reid and Melvin Gibbs; the piece is "Yugo Boy" (from Barbeque Dog), which, strangely, doesn't appear on the live album sourced from this same gig.

Jackson's drumming fascinates me in general, but during this period, he really homed in on a concept and sounded as much like himself as he ever has, if that makes any sense. I love the way he fixates on these particular pet feels and juxtaposes them in a modular way. One of the feels in question is that beat you hear him playing at the beginning of "Yugo Boy." Jackson has a manic way of going at the hi-hat, just hammering on those sixteenth notes, working up to an open-cymbal release at the end of every measure; meanwhile his bass-drum foot does a stylishly simple dance. He plays these sorts of beats constantly in the ’82/’83 Decoding Society material ("Gossip," also from Barbeque Dog, is another great example), and I love the way they contrast with what the horns are doing up top, a bedrock rhythm hurtling forward as the melody takes a more leisurely stroll. It seems to me that that was the core principle of the Decoding Society: Lay down something propulsive or funky underneath and then let the song waft along in its own ethereal space.

"Yugo Boy" is a fairly static piece, rhythm-wise (though I love the way that Shannon shifts to the ride for the bass solo at 1:45 in the vid above, offering a textural twist while keeping the pulse racing), and Shannon often seemed cool with this sort of approach: picking one beat and sticking with it throughout a piece. But there are some great examples of him playing in a more suite-like style, where compositions would feature several distinct movements and his drumming would follow suit. "Alice in the Congo," the last track on Mandance, is a good example of this. He starts off with this insistent march pattern—half-time, but again with this almost hyperactive urgency to it, thanks to steadily chomping eighth notes on the hi-hat. These types of beats are a signature of the Decoding Society, and they're what give this band such a buoyant feel; lately I've been struck by the unabashed unhipness of these beats. They're so wonderfully nonvirtuosic, almost leaden, not beholden whatsoever to the tradition of fusiony flash, as exemplified by Billy Cobham or any of the other principal drummers of that movement. Shannon is more about this sort of stubborn folksiness, these beats that lope along with a stick-in-the-mud sluggishness. Again here you hear that weird foreground/background tension, the drums just cruising ahead like a determined bulldozer while the horns do their slurry, languid dance up top. And then at :58 seconds, the band snaps into a bridge-ish section and without worrying about any sort of hip transition, Shannon drops into that wired sixteenth-note hi-hat frenzy, very similar to the "Yugo Boy" beat. Then back to the march beat for a bit, and then around 1:49, when the bass solo begin, he drops way down dynamically and enters this sort of trance-swing, built on fluttering snare-drum ghost notes, tense quarter notes on the hi-hat and these darting, delicate patterns on the ride and crash cymbals. It's a beautiful textural shift.

Shannon frames each little episode in the song with its own distinct beat. When Vernon Reid's guitar solo begins at around 3:05, the leader starts kicking up a little more dust, flirting with a heavy backbeat feel, livened up with splashy fills and digressions. Then after a brief horn fanfare around 4:15, he brings back the initial parade-march beat for a bit, before segueing into this climactic build-up—a gradually accelerating snare roll that starts out (around 5:16) feeling wonderfully draggy, like an anvil tied to the feel of the nimble horn players, and builds into a super-dense buzz. Throughout "Alice in the Congo," you really feel the intertwined-ness of Shannon the composer and Shannon the drummer; he's very keen as a writer on mini set changes and as a drummer on highlighting these shifts. It's not just "Play a head; play some time; play a head"; the best of the Decoding Society pieces from this period ("Harlem Opera," which concludes Barbeque Dog, is another one in this vein that I adore) have a story to tell, and Shannon makes sure that as a drummer, he's upholding the narrative integrity. It's almost like each of these different feels that he favors (the racing sixteenth-note hi-hat stuff, the draggy march beats, the dreamy and diffuse ride-cymbal-heavy sections—a set of approaches that, along with a plodding blues feel, also staked out the rhythmic territory for Last Exit) is its own character: a puppet to be animated, an accent to assume.

With many drummers I love, I think of them as speaking in a unified voice, relating at all times to a single overarching concept, but with Shannon, it's a bit different; I love the way he slips in and out of different dialects, juxtaposes them, shuffles them, constructs a sequence and progression. It's one of the reasons his music, especially from this period, feels like a bright and colorful world that you step into. The marvelous piece titles, the unexpected set changes—it all contributes to this sense that you're sitting at the foot of a master storyteller, one who's not simply executing a style (jazz, rock, fusion, what have you), not just playing music, but bringing a scene to life in sound—decoding it, maybe, leaving its wonderment fully intact.

P.S. You can purchase various CDs and DVDs (though not the ones mentioned above) at Shannon Jackson's website. If only he were MP3-equipped…

P.P.S. I hope it isn't too long before Shannon Jackson performs in NYC. He still plays frequently in Europe; I'm seeing here that he'll be in the Ukraine (!) with a new quartet this coming April.

P.P.P.S. Destination Out has served up some choice Shannon material in the past, e.g., this post, which sparked some lively discussion, as well as a cameo from the man himself.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Iron Balls of Steel: Steve Shelton returns

Here is my Pitchfork review of the new Loincloth LP. As you'll read in the piece, I never thought I'd type "Loincloth" and "LP" in the same vicinity.

As silly as it might sound given their name, this band means a lot to me. DFSBP readers familiar with the Math? Rock! mixtape might recall a passing mention of Loincloth in the entry for the band Confessor (No. 14). The two bands share a rhythm section—most prominently a drummer, Steve Shelton, whom I believe to be one of the 20 or so most inspired/inspiring drum-set performers of all time, in any genre. In terms of any kind of technical metal (if pressed, I'd label Shelton's microscopic niche "progressive doom"), there's no competition as far as I'm concerned, and one of the reasons this new Loincloth record feels like such a landmark is that prior to its release, you could only hear Shelton on three full-length recordings (a scant number considering that the man has been active in music since at least the late ’80s): two Confessor LPs (1991's Condemned is desert-island material for me, but 2005's Unraveled is also strong) and one very obscure, and not entirely satisfying, album by the spin-off band Fly Machine.

Iron Balls is a stunning addition to this tiny collection. Not only is it downright wizardly from a technical standpoint (and I'm not just talking about the drums here), as I discuss in the review, it packs way more of an emotional punch than I'd ever expected. I strongly urge you to listen to the record in full at Pitchfork and to buy a copy from the Southern Lord store (I couldn't resist the T-shirt plus LP deal).

In the meantime, here are a few choice Steve Shelton performances:

"The Stain" (Condemned, 1991)

"Alone" (from the highly recommend 2006 DVD Live in Norway)

"Hibernation" (Unraveled, 2005)

Instructional segment re: the title track to "Condemned" (bonus feature on Live in Norway)

P.S. Was going to excerpt Loincloth's original four-song demo here, but there are no decent-quality YouTube streams. As far as I know, the release isn't available in any official capacity, but you should have no trouble turning it up online.

P.P.S. Shelton sounds absolutely beastly in this early Confessor clip.

P.P.P.S. Here's a new, very comprehensive interview with the members of Loincloth.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #6: Bill Laswell

I'm happy to report that Heavy Metal Be-Bop, my jazz/metal interview series, has returned from a little hiatus. The sixth installment, a Q&A with Bill Laswell, is live in abridged form at Invisible Oranges (metal is the focus here, of course) and in a greatly lengthened director's cut at the series's online home, (HMB #7 is already in the can, though no promises re: how soon I'll be able to post it.)

As I mention in the intro to the Q&A, which you'll find at the links above, it's hard to discuss the jazz/metal connection without bringing up Bill Laswell; along with John Zorn, he's an elephant in the room. You'll find some Laswell talk—specifically, comments on Last Exit, the polarizing ’80s improv quartet he worked in with Peter Brötzmann, Sonny Sharrock and Ronald Shannon Jackson—in two prior HMB installments; check out Melvin Gibbs's thoughts here and Craig Taborn's here.

I'm not sure when I first heard of Bill Laswell. I remember that my teenage interest in Mick Harris's idiosyncratic dub-metal project Scorn (I still love the Evanescence LP) led me to the Laswell/Harris collaboration Equations of Eternity, and that a review in the sadly departed metal rag Rip tipped me off to Painkiller, Harris and Laswell's avant-grindcore trio with John Zorn.

As I got more into both jazz and metal though, I developed something of a distaste for Laswell. I remember being immensely excited when I first learned of the existence of 1997's The Last Wave, a trio record with Laswell, Derek Bailey and Tony Williams (!) under the collective name Arcana, and of Last Exit itself. Being a Bailey and Williams nut, as well as a Sharrock obsessive, it seemed that I couldn't go wrong with this material (not to mention Material, a Laswell project that featured guest turns from Sharrock and a bunch of other free-jazz heroes set against a backdrop of off-puttingly synthetic—for me, at least—’80s art-dance). But in the case of The Last Wave, the strange, boomy production, and in the case of Last Exit, a funk-oriented bass presence that struck me as a sore thumb, kept me on the outside. Records like these were classic examples of "On paper, this looks tailor-made for me, but I just can't get with it in the flesh."

Over time, though, I realized that I couldn't stay away. I wasn't going to let my aesthetic quibbles keep me from savoring some of Tony Williams's final recordings (the drummer died during the making of the second Arcana record, Arc of the Testimony), or an extended series of exchanges between musical heroes of mine such as Brötzmann and Sharrock. The more I sat with the Laswell discography (or at least the wings of it that intrigued me most), the more it impressed me. What I realized was that, like John Zorn, another artist whose own work I have mixed feelings about but whose curatorial/community-forging instincts I admire greatly, Laswell's greatest achievement has been his bridge-building, his willingness to forge connections between artists who never would've found each other (note Herbie Hancock and Akira Sakata's names on that Last Exit LP jacket above), or at least probably wouldn't have thought to document their meeting on record: Bailey and Williams, say, or Keiji Haino and Rashied Ali (who appeared with Laswell in a collective called Purple Trap), or Sharrock, Brötzmann and Shannon Jackson, who seem like soulmates after the fact but who, to my knowledge, hadn't played together before Laswell convened them. The Praxis project is another example; I'm not in love with the later material (oriented around Buckethead and Brain), but it warms my heart to read the personnel list for 1993's Sacrifist, which includes Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell alongside the dudes from Blind Idiot God. Laswell's work as an intergenre unifier is less well-documented than Zorn's (in founding Tzadik, Zorn created an invaluable umbrella entity that Laswell never managed to maintain for an extended period), but it's equally undeniable. I'm thrilled that these records exist.

And to branch out briefly into Laswell's work as a producer, the musical world owes him a great debt for helping to resurrect the career of Sonny Sharrock. Guitar and Ask the Ages are among my most treasured records, period, the two best presentations of Sharrock's heartrending magic. (Seize the Rainbow, a Laswell co-production, is an idiosyncratic keeper as well.)

Part of the fun of the Heavy Metal Be-Bop series has been interrogating some of my old aesthetic prejudices. To ignore Laswell outright would a major self-disservice. Just as I don't love all of his records, I don't agree with everything he has to say in the conversation linked above (for one, his estimation of Dave Lombardo's limited musical scope seemed overly dismissive, and even disrespectful), but I'm grateful to have had the chance to sit down with him and discuss this strange musical nexus. Tony Williams, whom Laswell knew well and worked with often, acted as a fulcrum for the conversation, and I think we ventured into a fair amount of underexplored territory re: Williams's ambitions and aesthetic goals as a rock-oriented player.

I hope you enjoy the interview. I'd like to sincerely thank Mr. Laswell for taking the time to meet with me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Beacons of song: Marsalis/Calderazzo/Connick

"If you give a soloist an open solo for thirty seconds, he plays like he's coming from the piece that you wrote. Then he says, 'What the hell was that piece I was playing from?' And the next thirty seconds is, 'Oh, I guess I'll play what I learned last night.' And bang! Minute two is whoever he likes. Which is probably Coltrane."—Bob Brookmeyer (RIP), quoted in Ben Ratliff's The Jazz Ear

I think about this quote a lot when I'm hearing jazz live. Often it's because I'm thinking how much Brookmeyer's cautionary anecdote applies to the situation at hand. Last night, thankfully, this was not the case.

The show was Branford Marsalis's "A Duo of Duos" at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room (TONY preview here), during which he dueted first with Joey Calderazzo—his partner on 2011's Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, over which I've already gushed extensively—and second with Harry Connick Jr., the latter of whom didn't sing. So these were pure saxophone/piano duos, with Marsalis switching between tenor and soprano.

Getting back to the Brookmeyer observation, what impressed me most about these performances was how fully the players were engaging with the material. They weren't "soloing on tunes"; they were getting inside the songs, rooting around, exploring.

The Calderazzo portion came first, four pieces from Songs in quick succession: "Endymion," "The Bard Lachrymose," "Precious" and "Bri's Dance." Right as the pair began "Endymion," you felt like you were being sucked into a vortex. The tempo was a little quicker than on the record, the elegantly dancing melody a little more rushed. Marsalis and Calderazzo seemed eager to crack open the shell of the tune and get to its sweet meat. But again, it wasn't about leaving the song behind. As they played, I got the distinct feeling of overlap, of simultaneity. The men were talking over one another, each jumbling up the melody in his own way, with no consensus tempo. The net result was dense, hectic but also coherent. You felt that each was expounding eloquently, passionately on the same topic, reading out of the same book without agreeing beforehand what page to begin on. Each was so dialed into the material that they could just sing out together, at once.

"Soloist/accompanist" was erased pretty much from the get-go. Yes, there was traditional form at work: The pair would play the melody and dig into it a bit; then Marsalis would drop out, leaving Calderazzo to play alone, and eventually he'd reenter. Marsalis's absences definitely built tension, but they didn't summon that sinking feeling that sometimes comes when a bandleader or dominant musical voice takes a break and you're left with something puny-sounding. Calderazzo was bursting with ideas, and as soon as Marsalis would exit, he would spread out his sound to fill up the space. There was something perpetual about the way he played, as if he couldn't bear to break momentum, but he'd slide all across the spectrum of density and tempo. I kept imagining a punch-card score being run through a player piano as a curious and attentive operator tried out various settings.

And then Marsalis would reenter and suddenly there was room for the two to dance and swoop, to decide in the moment on a consensus pause, to obsess on a tangential phrase. This duo was just about pouring out, a wash of ideas, backed up by a shared familiarity with the material. I've rarely heard a less "[playing] what he learned last night" jazz concept. Marsalis and Calderazzo were interrogating these songs, needling them, pounding out their wrinkles, obsessing over them. The songs were not fodder; they were the focus, the matter at hand.

I remember "The Bard Lachrymose" flowing, almost unthinkably, at an even slower tempo than on the record. What Calderazzo and Marsalis are doing with these somber pieces (the "melancholy" portion of Songs) isn't something I can personally think of any precedent for. To call them "ballads" almost seems silly. They are studies in meditation, in living with an ever-so-gradually unfolding feeling. Last night, "Bard" just oozed out so softly and tenderly, like shadow overtaking light as the day progresses, fueled by Marsalis's perfectly honeyed soprano tone. "Bri's Dance," the most beboppish piece on Songs, concluded the set with an uptempo scamper. The pair didn't fully articulate the melody until the end; they took their time jabbing, hinting, dissecting it. Another reminder that the best jazz isn't just about blasting off indiscriminately; it's about taking flight, yet knowing where your ceiling is—and, crucially, knowing where to land.

The Connick portion of the evening was equally strong. If I have less to say about it, it's only because I knew less going in; having not heard Marsalis and Connick together before—okay, let's be frank: having not heard Connick do much of anything except sing "It Had to Be You" in When Harry Met Sally—I had no idea what I was in for. Remarkably, this duo felt just as deep.

Obviously I had preconceptions. I'll admit that I'd formed a hypothesis that the Calderazzo portion of the evening would feel weightier and that the Connick segment would perhaps be cutesy, more of a lark, more casual. And there was a casual-ness to the way it began, with Marsalis and Connick ribbing each other. (Marsalis made a reference to how Connick was currently "busy being a Broadway star," and how he hadn't "looked at a piano for months.") But this mood did not carry over into the performance. The two began with a piece called "Virgoid," which appears on their 2005 duo disc, Occasion: Connick on Piano 2 (I haven't heard it yet, but you can bet I'll be investigating), and they immediately established a tricky, vexing mood. Given the pair's shared New Orleans roots, I expected a set filled with vintagey, good-time jazz (there was a "St. James Infirmary" encore, during which Connick and Calderazzo shared the piano, but that felt anomalous), yet there was little that felt carefree about the performance. "Virgoid" in particular registered as surprisingly tense, especially from Connick's end, as though he had to keep a tight grip on the material—the arrangement featured these periodic theme statements that seemed to crop up out of nowhere—in order to keep it from spinning out of control.

I don't have the rest of the Marsalis/Connick set list on hand, but I know they played one tune that was only identified as a New Orleans favorite (again, though, it felt more cloudy than buoyant) and "Chanson de Vieux Carré" (also from Occasion) and what I think was a standard. Throughout the set, Connick consistently impressed me. I just could not get ahold of what he was up to, though I remember this pervasive feeling that I described above, this sense of murkiness, perturbedness about his playing. Whereas Calderazzo had seemed to dance tempestuously across the keys, with no filter between his feelings and his movements, Connick seemed more leaden, sluggish, fraught. And I don't mean to suggest that this was a matter of inferior technique; it seemed entirely intentional, as though he were exploring in this instrumental setting all the complex, sometimes awkward or unsightly emotions that he might have to mask when donning his "vintage-style jazz singer" guise.

I can say definitively that there is way more to Connick than I had known. I'm having a hard time remembering an occasion recently when I was so simultaneously intrigued and unsettled by what an improviser was playing. I just could not for the life of me pin down what he was up to. There was a good amount of classic stride in his playing, but very little bebop that I could hear and no real "avant-garde" signifiers. It just felt very other, like a branch that had stemmed off from the main trunk of jazz sometime in the ’30s or ’40s and thickened and evolved and hardened into its own idiom entirely. I'm extremely eager to study up on his work.

The aforementioned "St. James Infirmary" encore, with Connick and Calderazzo sharing the piano bench, was the evening's lightest moment, but again, it wasn't simply a letting-you-off-the-hook moment. There was a silliness to the presentation—at one point Connick was standing behind Calderazzo, more or less embracing him as he played the extreme high and low registers of the keyboard, while Calderazzo sat and handled the middle range—but the performance itself was extremely inquisitive. As with the rest of the evening, there was a sense of the wringing out of potential within a song. It wasn't just "Let's play this tune and toss it aside while we show off and play what we already know over the changes"; it was "Let's steep in this, really marinate in it, explore this confined song space." A lot of improvisers would do well to pay attention to what Marsalis is up to with these duo performances. He seems to want to remind jazz that it is not above its materials, that the songs do in fact matter, that they are the beacon of musicmaking, whether or not you're working in an improvisational setting. Calderazzo and Connick get it too. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that these players are a school unto themselves.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Playing for the people: Sam Rivers and self-regimented freedom

“When Ornette Coleman emerged, he played thematic material which came out of the blues, and improvised on it. Cecil Taylor… played themes and improvised on them. Dave Holland and I had no thematic material; it was spontaneous creativity, completely improvised, and every night was different. I don’t feel I get credit for my contributions. I would like someone to tell me who was the one who started it if I didn’t.”—Sam Rivers, from a 1999 Downbeat profile by Ted Panken

The question of who "started" free improvisation is a tricky one, and probably unanswerable in the end. (I'd guess that most people's first encounter with an instrument involves free improv of some sort.) But free improvisation as Sam Rivers practiced was indeed its own thing. After spending some time over the past few days with various small-group Rivers records—especially Waves, from August of ’78—I'm starting to understand why this was. As committed as he was to free improvisation, he was just as committed to the performance and/or documentation of this practice. It seems to me that the trajectory of a given from-scratch session meant a lot to him, which is why you can listen to his free-improv records as records, and not just as experimental documents.

I'd be curious to read a detailed account of the changing membership of Rivers's small bands during the ’70s. About the only definitive statement I can make is that a lot of players passed through these ensembles. Yet Rivers was obviously committed to forming bands rather than just ad hoc groups: Dave Holland was a constant presence on bass; Barry Altschul or Thurman Barker often drummed; and tuba player Joe Daley acted as a trusty foil. As a quick scan of the available bootlegs (see the Inconstant Sol trove, e.g.) will tell you, these were working groups. They were touring, gigging, recording frequently, at home and abroad. And so while it's true that you typically won't hear prewritten thematic material in this body of work, you will hear a method being honed.

It seems to me that what Rivers was after was spontaneous set building. He wanted to improvise consistently with the same players over an extended period, so that the band could learn to pace itself, to construct a 45-minute performance, say, that could hold an audience's interest. With these Rivers records and bootlegs, what you're hearing is not, say, the Cecil Taylor mode, where you've got one or two gargantuan pieces making up a set; rather you're hearing skillfully paced episodes—not prewritten, exactly, but in their own way drilled, self-regimented. I think of long-form improv comedy, where a single word or phrase triggers an hour or so of cohesive skits. With these Rivers bands, you don't have the initial prompt, but you do have the same kind of discipline; yes, these groups are creating in the moment, but they're not oblivious to the listener's experience. Rivers was looking for spice, variety, punctuation, transition.

Waves is a great example of this. You can basically look at this album—a quartet with Daley, Holland and Barker—as a studio version of what the band would've been doing live around the same time. As far as I can tell, there is no prewritten material at all on this record. When I first picked up the disc, a few years back, it didn't stick; I was steeped in Rivers's more structured and even meticulous small-group work from the ’60s, records like Dimensions & Extensions, and I wanted to hear his compositional mind at work. But checking out Waves over the past few days, I was able to drop that baggage and appreciate the record for what it is: a snapshot of an improvising ensemble doing what it does. In a sense, there's nothing definitive about Waves, aside from the fact that the sound quality is outstanding; you're just hearing what this band happened to play on this particular occasion. But when you spend time with the album, the structure and the logic of it really start to stand out. Sure, there are no "tunes," but this band knew what it was doing.

As I discussed in my previous Rivers post, multi-instrumentalism is key here. Rotating among tenor and soprano saxes, flute and piano wasn't just a lark for Rivers; over time it became crucial to the way he structured his performances, kept them feeling constantly refreshed. Each instrument swap is a bookend, a chapter marking. For the four shortish tracks that make up the majority of the record (numbers 2 through 5), Rivers plays a different instrument on each one: flute ("Torch"), soprano ("Pulse"), piano ("Flux") and tenor ("Surge"), and on the long opening track, "Shockwave," he starts on piano and then shifts to tenor. Waves being a studio document, these episodes are clearly demarcated here, but the same sort of transitions were taking place onstage as well. Sure, the band may not have plotted out where it was going to begin—only that Rivers was going to start on piano—but once it did begin, there was a logic in place that dictated the subsequent flow.

On "Shockwave," you can really hear how Rivers's multi-instrumentalism guides the band's improvising practice. Rivers starts alone at the piano; Barker enters with small hand cymbals around 2:00, and then Holland comes in with a quasi-vamp at 2:18, giving the piece a real skeleton. The trio accelerates around 4:30, setting the stage for Daley's entrance, and the band explores this quartet formation for a bit. At 6:10, Rivers drops out, changing the texture drastically and leaving Daley to duet with Holland, as Barker offers subtle accents. Even if you haven't heard Waves before, if you're a Sam Rivers aficionado, you probably know what's about to happen: The leader is going to roar in on a different ax. The pause is utilitarian—Rivers needs a moment to switch—but it's also musical; even the pause inherent in the instrument swap becomes compositional, an interlude before the next chapter. Sure enough, Rivers enters on tenor at around 7:10 (he does play an ascending pattern, but to me, it sounds more like a favorite lick rather than a specific prewritten theme), and pretty soon, the band is sprinting along in a happy frenzy. The drama of bringing instruments in and out, of the band coalescing around Rivers, and filling in the space when he's absent, it's all part of way these groups operated. They were not just improvising; they were composing sets from scratch.

Each of the other pieces on Waves has its own clearly demarcated sound space. "Torch" picks up where "Shockwave" leaves off, tempo-wise, but the shift to flute changes the texture completely. "Pulse" slows things down to an abstracted-backbeat grind, with Rivers getting funky on soprano. "Flux" veers into a kind of chamber improv, built around dabs of subtle color from the leader's piano and Holland's singing arco work. And the tenor feature "Surge" flashes back to the high-energy grit of the second half of "Shockwave." The pieces all work together as a suite: 45 minutes of free playing with a purpose.

Even late in his life, as he was busy serving his exacting compositional muse at the helm of the Rivbea Orchestra, Rivers was still practicing this kind of self-regimented free improv in a working-band setting. One album I'd recommend highly is Celebration, from 2004, which features Rivers's trusty Orlando-based working trio with fellow multi-instrumentalists Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole. Even more so than the ’70s bands, this group committed itself to discipline within spontaneity, creating diverse, expertly paced suites in real time. Celebration is probably the best document of the band's shape-shifting dynamism, of the way it could sound like a traditional free-jazz trio one minute (with Rivers on sax, Mathews on bass and Cole on drums) and then a chamber ensemble the next (with Mathews switching to bass-clarinet and Cole to tenor).

To me, this drive for coherence and variety, even in an inherently experimental idiom, ties into Rivers's overall good-naturedness. There's little of the imposing, stone-faced, even audience-defying free-jazz warrior in him. Even when he was playing free, Rivers was playing for the people, and thus he cared about pacing, about the way one piece flowed into the next, about timely endings and transitions, about variety. And he forged his small-group discipline around these ideals. His collaborators internalized them, until they were able to create not just sound, but real music from scratch, and not just discrete episodes, but coherent strings of episodes, lasting the length of a club set. In a sense you could say that Rivers's small-group work tamed free jazz, made it digestible, but the man was such a galvanizing, tempestuous player that staleness was out of the question. As a small-group bandleader, his achievement was to harness "energy music," give it form, spontaneous arrangement—to give even the non-connoisseur a way in. He wanted to improvise, but he cared if you were listening. Even at his most abstract, Sam Rivers wanted to connect.