sam rivers, 1923-2011

sam rivers.

Yesterday morning, I was speaking with a friend in Louisville. He was openly envious about the number of world class jazz performances Lexington has hosted over the years and how it towered over what Louisville has brought in. Among the many names mentioned that had performed here (and not there): Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Keith Jarrett, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

“Plus,” he added, conceding further defeat, “You guys got Sam Rivers.”

Unbeknown to us both, Rivers – the groundbreaking saxophonist that was a pioneer in everything from bop to free jazz to groove-oriented R&B – would pass away later that day at age 88.

The list of giants Rivers rubbed musical shoulders with was vast. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, T Bone Walker, Cecil Taylor, Tony Williams, Joe Cocker and Wilson Pickett were but a few.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Beethoven or Bach or Duke Ellington or the blues,” Rivers told me prior to a two-day engagement at the Singletary Center for the Arts in February 2002. “The only thing that makes a symphony different from jazz is interpretation and phrasing. I hear relation in all the music.”

Rivers was best represented on record as an improviser. His mid ‘70s duet recordings with bassist Dave Holland are among his boldest musical experiments, although they have long been out of print. More accessible (in terms of purchasing, that is) are two splendid 1965 sessions for Blue Note.

One, Contours, placed Rivers (on tenor sax, soprano sax and flute) in charge of a band of budding all-stars that included Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Chambers. The others, Dialogue (recorded six weeks earlier), has him as part of another celebrated team (Hubbard, Chambers, Richard Davis and the great pianist/composer Andrew Hill) designed to support vibraphone great Bobby Hutcherson.

In both cases, the music engages in verses that regularly shift in temperament, tempo and melodic intent. But even at its trickiest (Mellifluous Cacophony from Contours), the playing still swings.

“Some years ago, critics were talking that the reason jazz lost some of its influence was because people couldn’t dance to it anymore,” Rivers said in our 2002 interview. “I took that seriously. These young people today may not know anything about jazz, but they get the emotion of it. And that emotional impact is what I want to project.”

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