Thoughts on Sam Rivers

January 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Karl: I’ve been so bummed out by all the death news that I excused myself from jazz internetalia for a minute… it’s surely a downer that we’ve lost the likes of Motian and Rivers, and it’s a lesser shame that (in light of all the recent ego battles and who/what sucks conversations) memorializing the dead seems to be one of the few unifying factors among jazz punditry. Really, it’s all on us–most of the people we’ve lost lived long, full musical lives, and they died in the “best” way possible for folks in our line of work–with boots on, and kicking. Half of me wants to spend the holidays listening to Motian’s autumnal recordings and getting reacquainted with stuff like Waves and the Rivers/Holland duos (that I haven’t broken out in ages), the other half knows that it’s time to step up, put some back into making my own music, and make sure the circle goes unbroken. I mean, the way Sam went out, still energetic, intellectually lucid, creatively viable and full of ideas–new music–that’s as much of a Butch and Sundance ending as anyone can hope for.

All that being said, I’m glad I got to spend some (recent) time with Rivers’s back catalog. He was a cracking session player, for one–his quiet sense of rhythmic chaos is a really nice counterbalance to Grant Green’s tartness and Larry Young’s shimmering precision on Into Somethin’, and Rivers’s sheer creativity and charismatic dynamism transform Spring from something of an exercise in abstraction into a mystical document. And Sam knew how to choose sidemen… pairing up the Carter/Williams rhythm team with Byard (on Fuchsia Swing Song is really interesting, since it endows what might otherwise be “just” an energetic post-bop session with serious rhythmic tension (Carter is a little behind the beat and Tony is a little on top of it, and Jaki is just this wobbly whirlwind of stuff–it’s crazy just how implicit the “free jazz” is on Fuchsia, since it’s a really straight ahead album on paper), and Contours brings out the mystery and resourcefulness of guys like Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock in a way that no album outside of Empyrean Isles really manages (I’m not counting the Miles stuff here…).

Naturally, Sam was a great doubler (a friend may have characterized it well when he said that, although Rivers may not have been as virtuosic a doubler as Dolphy, each of Rivers’s instruments took on a really unique characteristic) and an amaaaazing soloist–maybe the most surprising, most completely versatile soloist of the post-bebop era. I’m fully confident that you could plug Rivers into absolutely any context and get fireworks of some sort. Much has been made of his tenor playing in recent weeks, and I think the reason it’s so immediately gripping is that Rivers’s ideas seem to have articulated most clearly on the bigger horn. Sam’s tenor playing sounds both panoptic and kaleidoscopic–it seems like anything can burst out of his horn, and every note is pregnant with the implication of a million other ideas. I love the diversity of Sam’s grungiest work (the Tuba Trio music and all the Black Africa albums, although some of the Holland/Altschul music might fall into this category)–vocal interludes and all–and I think part of what makes this stuff so readily listenable to me is how subversive it is within its own idiom–i.e., Sam will not do “free jazz” in the regular free jazz way, and you might find yourself down one of any number of detours.

I’m least acquainted with–and, for that matter, probably least emotionally “connected” to–Sam’s later trio with Douglas Matthews and Anthony Cole and the later Rivbea Orchestra Music. I recognize that it’s ultimately easier to appraise old, canonicals works than a musician’s living legacy, and that made it difficult for me to remain abreast of “late” Rivers. That being said, the personal and historical context of this music is so eminently respectable that I can’t imagine I’ll go long without delving deeply into it. If Sam had merely “lived that long” he wouldn’t be so widely celebrated–it’s the fact that he continued to fire and burn on his own creative cylinders for such an extended duration, like a marathon runner who finishes with momentum to spare, that Rivers will occupy such a special place in collective memory.

More than anything else, listening to Sam’s music has given me fuel to compose and play. I’m of the mind that what separates great art and merely “good” art is that the latter impresses, the former inspires. (I’m reluctant to end on an axiomatic note, but the real work starts off the page, obviously/improvisationally. A luta continua.)

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