It was April, 1979, in the tiny room upstairs at dc space, the long-gone—it’s now a Starbucks, of all things—venue for adventurous groups like the Sam Rivers Quartet, which was playing that night. It was an incandescent performance consisting of one long, intensely-played set. I was there, and still remember it vividly more than forty years later. A month after they played dc space the quartet was in Europe; their concert in Hamburg, Germany from 15 May is documented on Braids, the fourth installment in No Business Records’ extraordinary Sam Rivers Archive Project.
By 1979, Rivers had expanded the trio format he used in the mid-1970s to a quartet; bassist Dave Holland, doubling on cello, was still with him, but Thurman Barker had replaced Barry Altschul on drums, and Joe Daley, playing tuba and euphonium, was added as the fourth member. The double bass-tuba pairing was an unusual one, but even with its bias toward the lower end of the sound spectrum, the group could move nimbly and with a clarity of line, as the Hamburg recording shows.
The album consists of two tracks, the first of which ends in a fade; presumably, both are from the same set, part of which is missing. The music opens with Rivers on tenor in the midst of a collective polyphony that gradually settles into a relaxed groove led by Holland, and culminates in an intense, very fast swing. If the first track deals in high-energy playing, the second, longer track shows the group’s mastery of nuanced textural playing. Barker opens it with a drum solo, which segues into Rivers on solo piano. Over the course of the thirty-plus minutes, the texture undergoes constant changes, with voices being added and subtracted in various combinations and all four players leaving ample space for each other. Particularly arresting are duets for Rivers’ flute, first with Holland on bowed bass and then with Daley on tuba. This clearly was a group that could make the unlikeliest-seeming instrumental combinations work beautifully and naturally.