Old Man Rivers


A funny thing happened to Sam Rivers on the way to his 68th birthday last Friday–he turned 75. Every reference book and liner note states his birth year as 1930. He professes not to understand why, cheefully affirming the correct year as 1923, a difference that holds more than actuarial interest. When Rivers first came to attention, in 1964, touring with Miles Davis and recording his sadly out-of-print Blue Note cult classic, Fuchsia Swing Song, he was considered a late bloomer, someone who, along with Jaki Byard–whose own 75th birthday, in 1997, was not celebrated nearly enough–had spent more than a decade in the neverland of Boston jazz.

Now we find he bloomed even later, quite possibly the only key figure in jazz to make his recorded debut past 40. The age differential helps explain the unusual nature of his originality, which was a long time fermenting, and makes him the poetically ideal representative for fortysomethings of the ’90s, the first generation in jazz history to take a consistently more adventurous musical stance than players half its age. The celebration was mounted last week at Sweet Basil in grand manner, three nights of the Sam Rivers Trio followed by three nights of a star-studded big band–which trooped into the studios of BMG the following Monday to record.

Everything about Samuel Carthorne Rivers, who was born in El Reno, Oklahoma, raised in Little Rock and Chicago, and educated at the Boston Conservatory of Music, is distinctive, not least his looks and superhuman energy. Rail thin and tall, with a brow high enough to accommodate two standing volumes of the OED and a perpetually amiable mien, he plays and conducts with his entire body, punching rhythms in the air, dancing, shoulders rippling like a souped-up Nicolas Cage. Why so happy? His music is a better-kept secret than Kenneth Starr’s sex life. Few of his major recordings have ever been available on CD, and that includes all his groundbreaking Impulse albums of the ’70s. In that decade, he and his wife Beatrice operated Studio Rivbea, a jewel of the loft era that encouraged new music that assimilated the lessons of previous eras. Which is what he did during those long years in the Beantown wilderness, before etching a resume that includes T-Bone Walker, Cecil Taylor, and Dizzy Gillespie, in that order. By his own account, he mastered the styles of great players, then dispensed with the specifics of those styles.

Most avant-garde players in the ’60s invented or seized upon radical procedures that mandated a separation from the harmonic labyrinths, modal plains, and pedal-point ostinatos that governed virtually all improvisation in modern jazz. But, like Jaki Byard, who could rumble the piano in or out of chord changes and access a panoply of techniques in and out of jazz, Rivers adhered to no musical religion but his own. His idea of free jazz meant the freedom to do whatever he wanted. Some of his most difficult and layered music is entirely notated (on the 1983 Black Saint Colours, he edited out the solos), though he is best known for prodigious feats of sustained improvisation (the 1973 Impulse Streams is exemplary). But what exactly is his style? Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz in the 60s suggests a compound of Coltrane, Parker, Webster, Young, Hawkins, and Rollins, with incipient interest in Ayler and Shepp, which certainly covers all bets, yet inadvertently underscores the distracting thing about Rivers: He isn’t radically individual, yet he doesn’t sound like anyone else. In weeding out the familiar, he has forged a fluid virtuoso style beyond style–an engaging, authoritative, emotionally resonant gloss on the modern idiom, almost diffident in its smooth vibratoless glow. Or, as he says on the bandstand regarding his huge and mostly unheard repertory: ”something old, something new, nothing borrowed, and everything blue.”

He further deepens the mystery of style by subdividing his prowess four ways, on tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, and piano. The idea that he’s a tenor saxophonist who doubles sells him short: Rivers is a superb soprano saxophonist with a warm, mercurial, and well-tempered sound; a robust flutist capable of a rich timbre or Rahsaan vocalizations; and a delirious yet ironhanded pianist whose contrapuntal pouncing prefigures his orchestral arrangements. One of his meatiest piano raptures is the 1976 duet ”Deluge,” with Dave Holland (one of two volumes on IAI, both in print, as is his much celebrated appearance on Holland’s ECM benchmark, Conference of the Birds), but he ought to record on the instrument far more. It brings out in him a nostalgic soulfulness, explored in ringing dynamics and ripe melody–though he can also go the way of all Cecil.

For a musician who has been marginalized as noncommercial, Rivers is singularly jubilant. Ballads make him moody on his ’60s Blue Note standards session, A New Conception (though his take on ”Temptation” is ecstatically irreverent), but his own music is a rush of crisscrossing angles and stacked chords and crashing clusters that collide and part like cells, often supported by a funk beat, a simmering ingredient in his music since the red-hot 1976 Impulse date Sizzle, which in its day was derided as fusion (right, with rock and rollers Dave Holland and Ted Dunbar). Clearly there are times when he wants to be on the one, courting not some chi-chi variation on funk, but the thing itself, bomp-a-bomp-bomp on electric bass. He has found in Florida, where he lives with his wife of 50 years, ideal support in Anthony Cole, who plays drums, saxophone, and piano, and Doug Mathews, who plays acoustic bass, bass guitar, and reeds. On opening night of his Sweet Basil stand, his comely ”Ripples” had Rivers playing soprano, Cole tenor, and Mathews bass clarinet, blending and parsing melodies that almost burst at the seams. He phrased the inevitable ”Beatrice” on tenor over a stop-time backbeat, ruminating sotto voce without a trace of sentimental posturing, and on ”Nightfall,” showed how to run changes without running banalities.

Rivers’s writing for larger bands is slightly mythic. One hears of great quantities of music in multiple arrangements, ranging greatly in length, usually excerpted on the rare occasions when they are heard at all. You can follow his progress from Dimensions and Extensions (Blue Note, 1967), in which he mastered the ploy of setting solos against the ensemble like long balls falling into a glove; to the benchmark Crystals (Impulse, 1974), a case study in notated anarchy; to the drier and more contained 10-piece saxophones-and-flutes unit, Winds of Manhattan, on Colours (one wonders if the original tapes exist, before the solos were excised). But the records don’t prepare you for the dense and clamorous enchantment of hearing his orchestral music on stage. The 14-piece ensemble at Sweet Basil was a long time coming, and if it shortchanged Rivers the soloist, it offered a conception so sure and seasoned as to belie the music’s evident difficulty, limited rehearsals, and dearth of performances.

The repertoire, including an updated ”Tranquility” (from Crystals), with layered dissonances and harmonies that mimic Rivers’s vocal squalls (or vice versa); a sumptuous orchestration of ”Beatrice,” with handsome passages for the reed section; and the funky ”Rejuvenation,” which gave each band member eight or 16 bars to sign his name. Two constants: The pieces are sewn from episodes that change precipitously; and the solos are very, very short, forcibly reprising the talent for brevity that flourished in the days of broadcast remotes and three-minute records, then disappeared. The music was often like an ocean’s roar, with heads suddenly popping above the waves to have their say before falling back, from roaring Hamiet Bluiett (who played a baritone solo in a range higher than the preceding altoist) to contemplative Chico Freeman to brawny Gary Thomas to silvery Steve Coleman to punctilious Greg Osby, just to mention the magnificent reed section. You felt you got to know something essential about each of them from those compressed volleys. Trombonists Ray Anderson and Joe Bowie have never played with more concentrated wit, and Anthony Cole modulated a funk passage into an elated second-line strut. After, Rivers shouted his last chordal squalls and the band played ”Happy Birthday.” Jazz was growing older, and having a damned good time doing it.