Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Goodbye, Sam Rivers

Much like Paul Motian, Sam Rivers seemed immortal. We can never take the greats for granted.

Nate Chinen penned a thorough, satisfying obit, and Ted Panken has posted some archival material that I can't wait to dig into. And here's a wide-ranging Spotify playlist from Phil Freeman. Some quick thoughts:

1) I feel that The Complete Blue Note Sam Rivers Sessions belongs in every jazz collection. The set is out of print, but three of the four LPs it contains (Fuchsia Swing Song, Contours and Dimensions & Extensions—each stunning in its own way) are currently available as stand-alones. It's a shame that the other Rivers Blue Note, A New Conception—a heartfelt, subtly adventurous set of standards featuring the underdocumented drum genius Steve Ellington, who's also on Dimensions, as well as Rivers's old Boston pal Hal Galper—is in limbo.

2) Rivers was a true multi-instrumentalist. Typically, when a musician, even a great one, doubles, triples, quadruples, etc. on a variety of instruments, I have a clear favorite, and all the others seem like consolation prizes (e.g., I enjoy Wayne Shorter's soprano playing, but I don't love it the way I do his tenor work). I didn't really feel this way with Rivers. The way he switched at will between tenor, soprano, flute and piano was his sound; he dignified a practice that sometimes seems scatterbrained.

3) For someone whose music was often very intense and/or abstract, Rivers always seemed like such a gracious, unbitter man. I fondly recall his enthusiastic, unfailingly patient interview demeanor during WKCR's glorious, weeklong Sam Rivers Festival a few years back. (I'm wishing I could re-live the performance that concluded the fest: a one-time-only reunion of Rivers's ’70s trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul.)

4) Three other Rivers records I love are Vista (2004), a beautifully recorded free trio with Adam Rudolph on hand percussion and Harris Eisenstadt on drum kit; Contrasts (1979), a probing, diverse quartet with an incredible band: George Lewis, Dave Holland, Thurman Barker; and Tony Williams's Life Time (1964), which contains some of the fiercest examples of Williams and Rivers's truly remarkable intergenerational mindmeld, also demonstrated on Fuchsia Swing Song.

Another pair of fascinating anomalies that I need to make some good time for: Tangens (1997), an intimate duo with Alexander von Schlippenbach, excerpted at the top of this post; Steven Bernstein's Diaspora Blues (2002), a set of Jewish themes featuring Rivers and his intrepid late-career triomates, Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole, both of whom also gave multi-instrumentalism a good name. (I remember hearing the Rivers/Mathews/Cole trio at the 2006 Vision Festival and coming away seriously impressed by their versatility and tight-knit dynamic.) I love the up-for-anything openness that Rivers displayed re: these sorts of guest appearances (e.g., Jason Moran's Black Stars, David Manson's Fluid Motion, plus two records with Ben Street and Kresten Osgood) and collaborations (1998's Configuration, with four European players).

5) I'm looking forward to reinvestigating Rivers's large-ensemble works. I must admit I never warmed to the Rivbea Orchestra, but spinning 1999's Inspiration on Spotify as I type, I'm charmed by its near-manic pep. Same goes for Crystals, from ’74.

Thank you for your music, sir, and farewell.

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