Julian Priester and Sam Rivers

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published June 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in the 1950s, bassist Charles Mingus recorded an improvisation called "Passions of a Man" in which he mumbled, hollered and carried on in some invented dialect. The piece was hard to characterize, let alone evaluate. "Hints on Light and Shadow," a collaboration between saxophonist, pianist and flutist Sam Rivers and trombonist Julian Priester, includes a comparable piece, "Chiaroscuro," on which Rivers wails half-articulately over see-sawing synthesized chords before turning to solo on his flute. Soon he is half-singing through the instrument, which he overblows to produce an angry buzz, and as Priester joins in this section becomes a conversation among overdubbed flutes and voices that gradually recedes into the distance -- hence the title, a term art historians use to describe the moody play of light and shade in a painting.

The techniques come from the electronic age as well as from avant-garde jazz introduced in the '60s. In the 1970s, Rivers led one of the most interesting free groups -- the Sam Rivers Trio -- and Priester performed with Herbie Hancock's vital fusion quintet as well as dozens of other bands. They've played together in countless different contexts, including on Reggie Workman's Postcards discs, "Summit Conference" and "Cerebral Caverns," and on "Hints on Light and Shadow," they seem to belong together. It's a series of informal and mostly unstructured duets between the two adventurous players, who are sometimes joined by Tucker Martine's electronics.

On "Zone" and elsewhere, Martine adds zany textures to the
music, but his contribution in the opening number, "Heads of the
People," is unfortunate. Martine introduces a repeated, distorted
phrase whose endless reiterations become as annoying as a traffic
jam on a hot day. I prefer the more modest conversations between
the two principals, as on "Public Servant" for instance, or
"Autumnal Influences," which has Rivers' soprano front and
center while Priester plays electronically altered trombone behind
him. I am not sure Rivers and Priester were thinking of Dickens'
satire of governmental bureaucracy, "Little Dorrit," when they
named "The Circumlocution Office," but certainly their pithy
conversations make more sense than the endless, circular
governmental procedures that Dickens deplored. Suggestive,
challenging, informal and occasional irritating, "Hints" is not, as
Dexter Gordon liked to say about music he liked, your average B

By Michael Ullman

Michael Ullman is a jazz writer and lecturer in the music department of Tufts University.

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