Here's another challenging yet accessible modern jazz album I've been enjoying lately. Sam Rivers recorded this album with his avant garde big band, the Rivbea Orchestra, in 1999. At the time, Rivers was pushing 80 (he's now 86 and still going strong!), but the music he scored for this album, and his solos throughout it, are as adventurous and energetic as those of any young vanguard on the scene today. This shouldn't really come as a surprise, since Sam Rivers is one of the most experienced players alive, having recorded numerous free jazz masterpieces since the mid 1960s with high profile artists like Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, and etc.
Inspiration features daunting big band arrangements that alternate between extremely carefully written phrases and far-out improvised solos. Often the band really swings, but in a sort of bizarre disjointed way; I'm reminded of the experimental big band works of Mingus from albums like The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady and Let My Children Hear Music, but the playing on Inspiration is typically a lot less tuneful, and much more abstract, than those. Actually, the album is often quite tuneful and even downright beautiful (hear "Beatrice" and "Solace"), but it speaks a particular jazz dialect that's a little strange to the ears at first. The forms of the pieces elude my comprehension even after multiple listens; new ways of hearing the parts fit together continue to reveal themselves, and the range of expression achieved through the variation of band textures is amazing. Some of the tracks are very dissonant and fierce, which is to be expected given Rivers' discography full of pretty out there records, but the music on Inspiration is generally as accessible as, say, Contours (Blue Note 1965), a classic free jazz staple.
Besides Sam Rivers I'm not familiar with any of the players on this album, but they're all more than up to par to work with the master. There are too many cool trombone, trumpet and sax solos to count, and the rhythm section (consisting only of drums and bass) stays deep in the pocket from start to finish. There are also appearances from a flute (played by Rivers) and an electric guitar. Very exciting, expressive, cerebral, vigorous music. Residents of Orlando, FL are fortunate to have regular opportunities to see modern jazz's most accomplished octogenarian perform with this group and others.