Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sam Rivers

Sam Rivers was one of my favorite musicians since I discovered his work in the 1990's. I was sad to see Peter Hum report of his passing Monday in Florida at the age of 88. Rivers' work appeale to me greatly, he had the energy and drive of the freest jazz, while at the same time the compositional acuity to give his music structure and keep it from dissolving into mayhem. The first records of his I heard of his were Colours with the Winds of Manhattan ensemble and his two-volume series of duets with the bassist Dave Holland. Both of these I found on vinyl in my public library of the time and they showed two different sides of a multi-talented artist. Colours placed him on a large ensemble, heavy on reeds allowing him to play his complex compositions arranged for him to sway and fly through at will. The duet records, Sam Rivers & Dave Holland Vol. 1 & 2 (still OOP as far as I know) allowed him to cycle through all of his instruments: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, piano and flute in a very free and conversational atmosphere. Scrounging the used bins at local record stores, I was able to find a record from his short tenure at Impulse records called Streams. This is an extraordinary stream of consciousness trio album recorded live at a jazz festival, mind-blowing in terms of intensity and musical ideas. Indeed, some wag at the record store had affixed a sticker to the album that said TRIP ON THIS. Eventually some of this music would return during the Impulse reissue period of the 1990's as the excellent Trio Live compact disc, but his extraordinary big band LP of the period, Crystals, and other music of the period remain more or less in limbo. Hopefully Mosaic can make a Complete Sam Rivers on Impulse set, because it would be revelatory. I was hooked at this time, but it was also during a break in his recording career, and the re-issue industry didn't catch up with what he had done in the past until Mosaic's splendid Complete Sam Rivers Blue Note collection, putting his Blue Note albums as a leader: Contrasts, Inventions and Dimensions, Fuscia Swing Song and Coutours on a three disc set with excellent liner notes. These albums (eventually available separately from Blue Note after the Mosaic boxed set went OOP) are really the Rosetta Stone for understanding Rivers' music from a fan's perspective. He had fully assimilated bebop and had listened carefully as the free-jazz revolution of musicians like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor spun around him. He masterfully combined these two divergent paths of music and demonstrated along with fellow forward-looking Blue Note artists like Bobby Hutcherson, Andrew Hill and Jackie McLean that jazz was a music of endless possibility. Also during the period of these recordings (the mid 1960's) he made some notable sideman appearances with the likes of Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson and Miles Davis. Along with being one of the most important pioneers of the "Loft Scene" of DIY musical venues in the 1970's with his famous Studio Rivbea, Rivers appeared often as a sideman, again weaving the threads of free and bop, playing with both Cecil Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie. In the 1990's came a radical change, as he moved to Orlando, Florida and discovered a thriving musical community that allowed him to realize his big band ambitions in the Riv-Bea orchestra, which was a fixture and very well documented on this year's Mosaic Select, which takes three discs of the Florida based unit of the band from the late 1990's and shows them to be an explosive and dynamic unit. He received some of the most recognition of his career by recording two albums of an all-star version of the orchestra for RCA. Inspiration and Culmination were both ecstatically received with rave reviews and even Grammy nominations. Rolling undaunted into his eighties, Rivers continued to perform with the orchestra in addition to recording free-ish trio records that showed his skilled undiminished. The albums Celebration, Purple Violets, Violet Violets, along with the self-issued Firestorm and Aurora LP's showed a musician still at the hight of his protean powers who remained that way to the end: in inspiration to both musicians and fans alike who leaves a legacy of unlimited courage, dignity and grace. He will be sorely missed.

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