Fuchsia Swing Song was saxophonist Sam Rivers’ first album as a leader, recorded in 1964. He had already appeared on Tony Williams’ Life Time LP and spent a very brief tenure in the Miles Davis Quintet, where he was replaced by Wayne Shorter. He has gone on to have a lengthy and varied career, primarily in the avant-garde scene, where he has been active not only as a performer but as a mentor and organizer, running a loft performance venue called RivBea in New York throughout the 70s, and performing up to the present with a variety of large and small creative ensembles.
Back in December of 1964, he went into the Rudy Van Gelder studio with pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams (who was only 19 at the time!) to record this masterful six-tune collection of original compositions. The album perfectly straddles the line between inside and outside, freedom and structure, composition and improvisation, control and chaos… and therein lies its strength.
The compositions are relatively straightforward, though not entirely standard in form. There is — of course — a blues and a rhythm changes tune, as with most Blue Note albums of the time, but Rivers’ take on those standard forms is unique.
Rivers’ original tunes also hint at standard forms and harmonies but exist in some alternate universe where everything is slightly tweaked. Cyclic Episode has a harmonic progression which seems to have no end despite its short length, and Luminous Monolith steams along like a freight train until it is suddenly interrupted by a solo break at the end of each chorus.
Jaki Byard’s accompaniment and solos are first-rate, displaying his own unique amalgamation of the whole history of jazz piano into something totally new. Ron Carter holds everyone together with his rock-steady bass work, and the youthful Tony Williams pushes everyone to the brink of their abilities with his driving swing and instantaneous reaction to the soloists.
Fuchsia Swing Song is a great listen no matter how “inside” or “outside” your tastes are. Rivers and company take the listener along on their wild, fascinating ride through an alternate jazz landscape where tradition and innovation meld together to create art that is fully engaging and familiar, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of the form.
Andrew Oliver, host of The Jazz Score, Mondays 7-9 PM