Sam Rivers: Go with the Flow

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 01.30.12 in Spotlights

Dimensions & Extensions (Rudy Van Gelder Edition)

Sam Rivers

Sam Rivers, who died at 88 the day after Christmas 2011, covered so much ground, we can’t see it all from here. He was a saxophonist, flutist, pianist, composer, leader of big and small bands, sideman to stars like mid-period Miles Davis and late Dizzy Gillespie, and proprietor of Studio Rivbea, one of the informal venues that defined New York’s edgy ’70s “loft jazz,” as heard on the Wildflowers anthologies recorded there. And he had a strong last act far from New York.

Rivers made his name in the ’60s as one of the Blue Note label’s lefties: not quite avant-garde, but leaning. He could split the difference: on “Mellifluous Cacophony” from Contours, bristling horns on the head giving way to swinging Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard spots. Rivers had the passion. On 1964′s Miles in Tokyo – warming the quintet’s tenor chair till Wayne Shorter arrived – he goes for it like a man with nothing to lose, fiery but sure of his technique. He harrumphed at modal players who didn’t stick to their declared modes. “Dizzy said I was the only musician he knew who played every chord, playing standard music,” Rivers told me (among others). “I thought that was the idea!”

In the 1970s, his music split into two streams: limber, free-wheeling improvising combos and densely-layered big groups. Those vectors began diverging on 1967′s Dimensions & Extensions, for midsize four-horn sextet. Wind/bass/drum improvisations are augmented by three lyrical winds swelling up in the backgrounds, to bolster the action, flesh out the harmonies, and goose a soloist. It’s his big band method in embryo.

You can glimpse the development of his large ensembles on 1974′s expansive Crystals, 1981′s Colours (11 winds, all charts/no solos) and 1998′s star-studded Inspiration and Culmination, by which his concept’s fully developed. Dissonantly voiced zigzag horn lines soar over one-chord funk: a meeting of high and low any way you mean it. That formula propelled the Rivbea Orchestra he regularly led after moving to Orlando in 1992. You’ll have to look offsite for the Florida edition’s indie Aurora and 3-CD Mosaic set Trilogy (for which I wrote the notes).

Dimensions & Extensions was demonstrably ahead of its time; it went unreleased till the mid-’70s. That was the decade of Rivers’s highest profile, mostly owing to spirited trios that showed how hard free play could swing. His most celebrated unit had precise propulsive bassist Dave Holland and pushing, sometimes coloristic drummer Barry Altschul, who’d been working with reedist/flutist Anthony Braxton. Holland’s quartet album Conference of the Birds, a ’70s classic, brought all four together; the program’s energized by the contrast between Braxton’s angularity and Rivers’s sinewy, serpentine approach.

Rivers, Hollandand Altschul improvised whole sets without any predetermined material, but familiar patterns emerged. Bass and drums set up vamps and grooves under various axes Sam played in turn, including his throaty tenor and dry, leafy flute. (He’d whoop a bit, too.) His spackle-piano, informed by Cecil Taylor’s spiky dissonance, could turn touchingly lyrical. Rivers had played soprano sax before tenor, and made far more than his peers out of that horn’s slippery snakecharmer side. The trio’s music had wonderful flow – it’s free but really moves. The Quest from 1976 is a snapshot of their interaction; the wild-card Rendez-Vous addsItaly’s madcap romantic Mario Schiano on alto, performing his beloved “Lover Man.”

Another classic Rivers trio had nimble tuba player Joe Daley and any of several drummers; Black Africa with Sid Smart at the traps (and pianist Don Pullen sitting in for a spell) is part of Atomic Records’ welcome excavation of Italy’s elusive Horo catalog. Then, taking a cue from Conference of the Birds, Rivers brought Holland and Daley together to crisscross the bass register on 1978′s fast-moving Waves, alongside new star trombonist George Lewis and drummer Thurman Barker. Again, the method is open and the flow magnificent.

Other ’70s trios are up on the overlapping Hues, a compendium of bite-size concert excerpts, and the longer-form Sam Rivers Trio Live: with Altschul and Cecil McBee or Arild Andersen on bass; with McBee and drummer Norman Connors; with bassist Richard Davis and Warren Smith on drums. There are melodic and explosive moments all over. For the latter, check out the closing minutes of “Suite for Molde” (part two) on Trio Live, where a squealing soprano and bowed bass merge. (To untangle the particulars, visit Rick Lopez’s awesomely detailed Rivers website.)

After moving to Florida, Sam Rivers led his longest-lasting trio, with Doug Mathews on bass, electric bass and bass clarinet, and Anthony Cole on drums, tenor sax and piano. All their instruments and his own four gave the band dozens of timbral combinations to work with; sometimes they morph into a wind trio on Celebration, recorded live just after Sam’s 80th birthday in 2003. In a way, that unit reunited his twin paths: a free-wheeling trio with multiple voices to orchestrate.

Rivers had been a reliable sideman in the ’60s – on Blue Note with Tony Williams, Andrew Hill, Grant Green, Larry Young, Bobby Hutcherson – and now younger players tapped him to spark or burnish their records. Sam’s dark but mobile tenor adds instant gravitas wherever it appears on pianist Jason Moran’s 2001′s Black Stars. (He also plays flute, soprano and even piano, kicking off “Sound It Out.”) Brassman Steve Bernstein fronted Rivers’s Florida trio on Diaspora Blues, ditto trumpeter Brian Groder on his Torque, just as trombonist David Manson had absorbed them into his swingy quintet Fluid Motion .

Other sessions were looser. Rivers on his three horns improvised the CD Vista in California with drummer Harris Eisenstadt and percussionist Adam Rudolph. And in 2004, drummer Kresten Osgood and bassist Ben Street brought Sam north to record the loose trio performances (including a few standards) heard on the rough and ready Violet Violets and Purple Violets, the latter with vibist Bryan Carrott on four numbers. It was as if Street and Osgood sought to revive Sam’s ’70s trio magic, and who could blame them?