Sam Rivers was born in 1923; he died on the day after Christmas, 2011. The death of an 88-year old can't really be said to be shocking or unexpected, but Rivers' passing caught me be surprise; it sometimes seemed as if he would live forever, creating incredible music for all time.
Sam Rivers was a saxophonist (tenor and soprano), flutist, pianist and composer; he also recorded on bass clarinet and synthesizer (and as a vocalist) on occasion. Jazz is often considered a young man's game, but Rivers was a late bloomer, at least in terms of making a mark in the larger jazz world. Although he had put in stints with Herb Pomeroy's Boston big band and T-Bone Walker and had recorded a Tadd Dameron session for Blue Note (not released until many years later), he was over 40 years old and practically unknown when he joined Miles Davis's quintet for a tour of Japan in 1964.
Recordings from that tour reveal a mature, imaginative, and very individualistic musician. He knows the tunes, knows the changes, and knows how to improvise over them. But he already seems to be somewhere else; his phrasing and note choices push against the confines of the songs. Musically speaking, Rivers wanted to be elsewhere, and his association with the Davis group ended when the Japanese tour was over.
But the floodgates had been opened; by the end of the year, Rivers had recorded Blue Note sessions with Tony Williams and Larry Young, followed by Fuchsia Swing Song, his own first album. This seeming explosion of creativity marked the level of accomplishment that would last the rest of Rivers' life.
In 1970 he and his wife Beatrice opened Studio Rivbea in their Manhattan loft home. For most of the decade, audiences had the opportunity to walk through Rivers' living room to the performance space and hear some of the finest avant-garde jazz musicians in the world. Highlights from one week at Studio Rivbea were issued on five LPs - the Wildflower series on Douglas, reissued on CD as The New York Jazz Loft Sessions.
In 1991, he took a step in common with many Northern residents nearing 70 years of age - he moved to Florida. In Orlando, he found a large number of highly skilled musicians who were employed by Disney World, but were hungry to play some challenging, creative music. Rivers' name for his large ensembles was the RivBea Orchestra, and the Florida version of the big band was tight and impressive, even if some of the soloists could not match Rivers' own level of inspiration.
But for many listeners, Rivers was at his best in a trio setting, joining a bassist and drummer to play seamless sets of mostly-improvised music that flowed in and out of different keys and rhythms. His mid-70's trio, with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul, was almost telepathic in the musicians' responses to each other. His Florida trio, with Doug Mathews on bass and Anthony Cole on drums, was also excellent. Mathews doubled on bass clarinet and Cole on tenor sax, so they sometimes produced surprising all-woodwind textures. Personally, I feel cheated that the only recorded evidence of a really magnificent trio, Rivers, bassist Richard Davis, and percussionist Warren Smith, is six minutes from a 1972 concert released on Rivers' Hues album.
I was lucky enough to hear Rivers perform three times. The first was at Tyrone's in Athens, Georgia, where he played a stunning duet performance with Dave Holland in 1979. He was back a week later with a quartet, but the Art Ensemble of Chicago had a concert a few blocks away the same night - what a choice to have to make! - and I went with the Art Ensemble. (As I write this, I'm listening to the two wonderful Rivers/Holland duo albums on the Improvising Artists label.)
I didn't hear Rivers in person again until 2002, when his trio with Mathews and Cole played in an old stone church with wonderful acoustics, just a few blocks from my house in Atlanta. About a year and a half later he drove up from Orlando (no limo or private jet - the jazz business ain't exactly big-time show biz) to play a concert with the Jason Moran Bandwagon trio at a concert hall south of Atlanta. One of the selections they played was Rivers' tune "Beatrice," from the Fuchsia Swing Song album; this is the only one of Rivers' compositions that has become something of a jazz standard.
And now I am left with not only the memories of some wonderful concerts, but with regret. I always meant to make the eight-hour drive to Orlando to hear the RivBea Orchestra perform, but somehow never got around to it. I was excited to have a chance to redeem myself this Spring - I was planning to meet a friend in Sarasota for some shows Rivers had scheduled in March. Now, of course, that won't happen.
Reading what I've written, I'm struck with what a shallow tribute this is. I've only scratched the surface; Sam Rivers deserves a book, not a little blog post. So long, Sam Rivers, and thanks for the endlessly creative music.