What I Learned From Sam Rivers : A Blog Supreme The late multi-instrumentalist and composer exemplified what happens when musicians are empowered.

What I Learned From Sam Rivers

Sam Rivers. RIKU hide caption

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Sam Rivers.


By now, you may have heard that multi-instrumentalist and composer Sam Rivers died last week at 88. The Orlando Sentinel first reported it; The New York Times' obituary does a good job of summing up who he was and what he did. Wanna know just how much incredible stuff he's been a part of? One fan has charted his extensive discography.

I was away from work when Rivers died, and I never knew him well personally. But I have studied his career a bit. In 2007, I co-produced a weeklong radio broadcast dedicated to Sam Rivers culminating in a reunion performance with bandmates Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. I also got to interview him for a few hours (the audio of which I have since misplaced, sadly) and hear his take on his life and times.

All that was quite formative, so I've spent the last week or so reflecting on just how his music changed the way I think about music. I'd like to share six precepts that still guide my work as a music journalist — six ideas that Sam Rivers exemplified for me:

  1. Putting musicians in charge often results in unique experiences. Sam Rivers is known as an influential participant of "the loft scene," an idea defined largely around the lower Manhattan loft dwellings used as performance/gallery venues in the 1970s. One such loft was Rivers' Studio Rivbea, a space that doubled as a home for his family. (The "bea" in Rivbea comes from Beatrice, his wife and business partner of many years.) Rivers set up Rivbea as an environment where musicians could rehearse, experiment, form partnerships and generally do the essential behind-the-scenes activities that musicians don't get paid for but need to do. It allowed for great art a commercial marketplace would not have supported, as evidenced in performances, recordings, festivals and interdisciplinary exhibitions from Rivbea and places like it — not to mention the many musicians who can testify to the loft community being crucial to their professional development. And of course, it is no coincidence that Rivers left us so many great recordings in the '70s (notably on Impulse, among several smaller labels): His very apartment was a hub of creative activity.
  2. Free improvisation doesn't have to be "difficult." Sam Rivers could certainly improvise over melodies and chord changes, but also prided himself on being able to improvise "freely," with minimal or zero predetermined guidelines. His ensembles with bassist Dave Holland often exemplified this idea. Because it is necessarily abstract, and often dissonant in common practice, this sort of music is sometimes thought of as abstruse. Sam Rivers sometimes came at you with that archetypal fire — but there was a readily identifiable logic to it. Sometimes he would fall into a funk or bebop beat as an anchor. Sometimes he would intrigue you with texture: Tenor sax, pizzicato bass and drum sticks one moment could become flute, arco bass and cloth mallets the next. Sometimes, relying on a deep understanding of music theory, he would create moments of tender lyricism or harmonic depth. If you gave him, say, five minutes, Sam Rivers' bands would give you "a way into" the music, something to center your listening comprehension, something to make "difficult" music inviting.
  3. Good musicians exist in a lot of different places. In the early 1990s, Rivers moved to the Orlando, Fla. area. It was warm, for one — having lived through Boston and New York winters for decades, he was happy to escape — but more importantly, he discovered that the local theme parks employed a lot of high-quality musicians. Word quickly spread that Sam Rivers was new to town, and it wasn't long that he had a big band to write for and perform with regularly. In later interviews, he sometimes talked about the epiphany he had upon moving away from New York: that creative, top-flight players were to be found all over the map. (I remember talking to Rivers about a few Australian musicians he was newly impressed with, the names of whom now escape me.) That's a lesson I try to keep at the forefront of my mind. New York City may have the highest concentration of good jazz players, but it certainly has no monopoly on people who can make deeply affecting improvised music — and it would be terrible if it did.
  4. Recognize jazz musicians as composers when they deserve it. If nothing else, Sam Rivers' name will long accompany his ballad "Beatrice," which has now become standard repertoire. Rivers was proud of having fashioned a neat little tune with wide currency — he played it to the end of his days — and rightly so. He actually wrote a number of neat little tunes for small groups; see Fuschia Swing Song, Contours and other Blue Note albums he made in the '60s for a taste. And he was passionate about writing for large ensembles. You'll find a few albums in Rivers' discography recorded with a wind ensemble he called Winds of Manhattan; you'll find more for big band, often called the Rivbea Orchestra. (Crystals is perhaps my favorite.) He saw what he did as writing "backgrounds for improvisers," as he titled one of his albums, but those backgrounds had so many colorful layers that you couldn't help noticing the craft that went into them. And that craft ought to be noted too.
  5. Don't fetishize the distant past. The other day, the blog Destination: Out posted samples from a 3-CD set out in 2011 which collected new recordings of the modern-day Rivbea Orchestra — the Florida edition. That is, Rivers was creating new work his entire life. Rivers was also fond of performing as a trio with the rhythm section of that group: bassist Doug Matthews and drummer Anthony Cole. As all three of those musicians played multiple instruments virtuosically, he could say it was "the most creative group that I've ever had the good fortune to be a part of." Now, here's a guy who made canonical recordings, operated his own venue, played in bands with Miles and Dizzy and Cecil Taylor — claiming his current band was the "most creative." Because he was so active throughout his days, there were many opportunities to hear from him in the here and now, both live and on record. It was a constant reminder — well, first, to learn from the masters while we still can, but also that even living legends progress and evolve artistically, and stories should be told about their current output too.
  6. It's all the same. You may know Sam Rivers was once, briefly, the tenor saxophonist in the quintet of Miles Davis, c. 1963. Preceding that, he was touring with bluesman T-Bone Walker. (The guy who helped Rivers get the Miles gig was drummer Tony Williams — then a teenage drum prodigy who Rivers mentored while both were based in Boston.) And in the late 1980s, after decades where his best-known output was free improvisation, he spent years touring with Dizzy Gillespie's big band and small groups, uniting him with a bebop pioneer (and an early influence, and a relative peer). Saxophones, flute or piano; through-composed or fully improvised; "in" or "out"; large ensemble or trio; in front of or simply in the band: To him, and to so many other musicians, it was all one big musical adventure. He seemed to recognize that this vast range of experience was indeed vast, but I don't think he dwelled on it much apart from curious interviewers. It just seemed to come out in every note he played.