Sam Rivers

Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is well known for its central trope -- a man remains ageless in the flesh while his photograph manifests the ravages of time. The reverse is true, in large degree, for free-jazz reed legend Sam Rivers, an octogenarian whose body displays most of the frailties that come with that advanced age but whose playing carries virtually every bit of the power it did back in the '60s.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is well known for its central trope — a man remains ageless in the flesh while his photograph manifests the ravages of time. The reverse is true, in large degree, for free-jazz reed legend Sam Rivers, an octogenarian whose body displays most of the frailties that come with that advanced age but whose playing carries virtually every bit of the power it did back in the ’60s.

This perf, the capper to a weeklong celebration of Rivers’ career, wasn’t so much a recapitulation of his catalog — although some of the lengthy improvisations quoted his classic works in passing — as it was a portrait of an artist whose restless streak still leads him to surprising vistas.

Like peers such as Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, Rivers was always somewhat hesitant to choose a primary instrument, a reluctance that remains one of his calling cards. Here, he flitted peripatetically from flute to soprano sax to tenor, wielding each with the sort of precision one might associate with a neurosurgeon.

His soprano playing was most impressive, dominated by linear, encircling lines that skittered through and leapt over Dave Holland’s commanding bass lines. The tenor brought Rivers’ more conventional aspects to the fore in passages that ranged from old-school bebop to wickedly playful, sun-kissed calypso forays.

Situated in the midst of a Coltrane-inflected modal extract, the latter imparted the feel of a brief recess on the playground and affirmed Rivers’ reputation as a player capable of stimulating without becoming confrontational.

Jazz scholars were champing at the bit in anticipation of this perf, a rare reunion of the trio with which Rivers recorded some of his most revelatory, groundbreaking material upwards of three decades ago. And while aud members with some grounding in the theories of the avant-garde probably got more out of the evening’s dense, challenging pieces, those willing to be swept along by the sonic torrents that poured forth from Rivers’ instrument were taken on an equally riveting ride.

Sam Rivers

Miller Theater; 700 capacity; $25 top

Production: Presented by WKCR and Columbia U. Musicians: Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul. Reviewed May 25, 2007.

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