Since its first releases in 1939, the Blue Note label has become the standard-bearer for some of the best moments in recorded jazz, with a reputation for quality that has inspired legions of voracious collectors. The appetites of those collectors has meant that the label's storied catalog has been in a constant state of update, with albums -- especially from the prime era of the '50s and '60s -- being reissued regularly and repeatedly, depending on the format du jour. With the advent of the CD era -- and the mid-'80s revival of the label -- scores (if not hundreds) of jazz classics have been rescued from out-of-print obscurity; if you can believe it, there was a time when John Coltrane's "Blue Train" was unavailable in record shops.
So, with nearly two decades of catalog restoration work behind them, it comes as something of a shock when the vault-diggers at Blue Note emerge from their work with landmark albums and sessions that have yet to be issued on CD. As part of the label's ongoing "Connoisseur Series" -- limited-edition reissues of some of Blue Note's more revolutionary sessions -- the more obscure edges of the label's output have been well-documented. Forward-looking recordings by Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Bobby Hutcherson have received the same respectful treatment as more straight-ahead and underappreciated players like Don Wilkerson and Tina Brooks. By and large, the Connoisseur Series focuses on albums that had limited commercial appeal but historical value, as well as unreleased sessions.
The 1964 album "Fuchsia Swing Song" was the studio debut of tenor player Sam Rivers as the leader of his own session, and despite the reputation that Rivers would gain for himself over the next 40 years of playing, the album has been unavailable for nearly all of that time. Now, having gotten the Connoisseur treatment -- remastering, four bonus tracks -- this demanding statement of intent is once again in stores, just in time for Rivers' 80th birthday. (We'll ignore the fact that the master tapes seem to have suffered from some minor storage issues and just be happy that the disc is out at all.)
Having ingratiated himself to the outer edges of the Blue Note roster with appearances on albums by Tony Williams and Larry Young, Sam Rivers' bold, free-swinging tenor style fit right in with the cautious approach Blue Note was taking to "The New Thing." And though the label surely knew it was getting a stellar player when they signed up Rivers, the fact that they also had contracted the talents of an above-par composer soon became evident. Having penned all of the half-dozen songs on this debut, his peculiar combination of free-jazz fire and structural accuracy was incredibly evocative for the time. Each track here -- from the loving "Beatrice" to the blistering title track and the appropriately obtuse "Ellipsis" -- easily demonstrates that Rivers was a force to be reckoned with. A phenomenal quartet is in sharp form here. Rivers, along with Jaki Byard, Ron Carter and Tony Williams (the latter two were part of the classic Miles Davis group that Rivers performed with briefly a couple of months earlier), infuses each of these dense constructions with a visceral drama that, although certainly beholden to some modal, post-bop formality, is largely pointing the direction toward the free-bop that would soon dominate the scene.
Sadly, the album didn't fare too well commercially, and although three more Blue Note albums -- each of increasing quality -- were released, it became clear by the end of the '60s that Rivers was just a little too far ahead of his time. Of course, the commercial disappointment he had at Blue Note didn't dissuade him from his craft (especially since the work on those albums is quite impressive); after a teaching stint, he and wife Beatrice would move to New York and begin nurturing the then-struggling improv scene there with their loft sessions. Though he's become something of an elder statesman in the free jazz community in the time since, the brilliant energy on "Fuchsia Swing Song" is an easy reminder of why he's long been deserving of that status. (Sam Rivers Electric Trio performs at The Social, Saturday, Nov. 1.)
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Also in the "vault revelations" category from Blue Note is another new Connoisseur Series release, "Passing Ships" by pianist Andrew Hill. These monumental nonet sessions were recorded in 1969, just as Hill was at the height of his compositional powers (not to mention his piano playing). Albums like "Smokestack" had easily established him as one of the most forward-looking structuralists on the Blue Note roster, and he had long voiced a desire to work in a large-group setting, having become enamored with Big Sounds via septet sessions in 1965 ("Compulsion") and vocal choir work ("Lift Every Voice") earlier in 1969.
Entering the studio with a clutch of meticulous charts -- everything from English horn and alto flute was accounted for -- and a stunning cast of players, the two days of sessions were a disappointment to Hill. (He grouses in the liner notes about having trouble getting musicians to play the music the way he heard it in his head.) Despite incredible work from Julian Priester, Dizzy Reece, Ron Carter and others (Joe Farrell carries the mule's load here, voicing himself on five different instruments), Hill must have detected a vague lack of cohesion in some of the parts. Yet, 30-plus years later, such occasional misalignments are certainly negligible. These sessions are surprisingly fresh in both content and execution, fusing blazing freedom onto a swinging undercurrent and precisely mapped melodies.
Sadly, like "Fuchsia Swing Song," the master tapes from these sessions seem to have degraded over the years and occasional muffled spots do make themselves heard. Regardless, the bracing compositional strength that Hill is known for makes up for such shortcomings, and all seven of these tracks -- the gauzy sway of "Plantation Bag" in particular -- are well worth discovering.
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