Review by Troy Collins
Long before Sam Rivers' late 1990s big band albums, Inspiration and Culmination were nominated for Grammys, there was Crystals, from 1974. Although Crystals is Rivers' earliest foray into large-scale ensemble writing, it is by no means an embryonic effort. Recorded in the halcyon days of the loft-jazz scene, Crystals is a somewhat more accessible affair than one would expect. In the experimental big band tradition of Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Sun Ra, Sam Rivers' first big band album makes a fine contribution to this often under-sung genre.
The opening cut, "Exultation" lives up to its title. Horn lines weave around each other as River's soprano snakes through them, never flagging in intensity. "Tranquility" follows, with a funky acoustic bass and tuba ostinato leading the ensemble into a mid-tempo groove. "Postlude" is a short interlude that leads into the albums second side, starting with "Bursts," a scorching free-bop feature for River's furious tenor. The march-like collective improvisation "Orb" takes the energy level down just a notch to prepare for the climactic closer, "Earth Song".
Embracing the discordant linear quality of Muhal Abrams writing, albeit less rigid, more swinging and occasionally even funky, Rivers big band compositions are more accessible than Braxton's but further out than anything Mingus had attempted at the time. While Crystals may be the blueprint for his more recent big band albums, it is more than just a historical curiosity. Not for the faint of heart, Crystals is creative orchestral music at it's most challenging and rewarding.