Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Playing for the people: Sam Rivers and self-regimented freedom

“When Ornette Coleman emerged, he played thematic material which came out of the blues, and improvised on it. Cecil Taylor… played themes and improvised on them. Dave Holland and I had no thematic material; it was spontaneous creativity, completely improvised, and every night was different. I don’t feel I get credit for my contributions. I would like someone to tell me who was the one who started it if I didn’t.”—Sam Rivers, from a 1999 Downbeat profile by Ted Panken

The question of who "started" free improvisation is a tricky one, and probably unanswerable in the end. (I'd guess that most people's first encounter with an instrument involves free improv of some sort.) But free improvisation as Sam Rivers practiced was indeed its own thing. After spending some time over the past few days with various small-group Rivers records—especially Waves, from August of ’78—I'm starting to understand why this was. As committed as he was to free improvisation, he was just as committed to the performance and/or documentation of this practice. It seems to me that the trajectory of a given from-scratch session meant a lot to him, which is why you can listen to his free-improv records as records, and not just as experimental documents.

I'd be curious to read a detailed account of the changing membership of Rivers's small bands during the ’70s. About the only definitive statement I can make is that a lot of players passed through these ensembles. Yet Rivers was obviously committed to forming bands rather than just ad hoc groups: Dave Holland was a constant presence on bass; Barry Altschul or Thurman Barker often drummed; and tuba player Joe Daley acted as a trusty foil. As a quick scan of the available bootlegs (see the Inconstant Sol trove, e.g.) will tell you, these were working groups. They were touring, gigging, recording frequently, at home and abroad. And so while it's true that you typically won't hear prewritten thematic material in this body of work, you will hear a method being honed.

It seems to me that what Rivers was after was spontaneous set building. He wanted to improvise consistently with the same players over an extended period, so that the band could learn to pace itself, to construct a 45-minute performance, say, that could hold an audience's interest. With these Rivers records and bootlegs, what you're hearing is not, say, the Cecil Taylor mode, where you've got one or two gargantuan pieces making up a set; rather you're hearing skillfully paced episodes—not prewritten, exactly, but in their own way drilled, self-regimented. I think of long-form improv comedy, where a single word or phrase triggers an hour or so of cohesive skits. With these Rivers bands, you don't have the initial prompt, but you do have the same kind of discipline; yes, these groups are creating in the moment, but they're not oblivious to the listener's experience. Rivers was looking for spice, variety, punctuation, transition.

Waves is a great example of this. You can basically look at this album—a quartet with Daley, Holland and Barker—as a studio version of what the band would've been doing live around the same time. As far as I can tell, there is no prewritten material at all on this record. When I first picked up the disc, a few years back, it didn't stick; I was steeped in Rivers's more structured and even meticulous small-group work from the ’60s, records like Dimensions & Extensions, and I wanted to hear his compositional mind at work. But checking out Waves over the past few days, I was able to drop that baggage and appreciate the record for what it is: a snapshot of an improvising ensemble doing what it does. In a sense, there's nothing definitive about Waves, aside from the fact that the sound quality is outstanding; you're just hearing what this band happened to play on this particular occasion. But when you spend time with the album, the structure and the logic of it really start to stand out. Sure, there are no "tunes," but this band knew what it was doing.

As I discussed in my previous Rivers post, multi-instrumentalism is key here. Rotating among tenor and soprano saxes, flute and piano wasn't just a lark for Rivers; over time it became crucial to the way he structured his performances, kept them feeling constantly refreshed. Each instrument swap is a bookend, a chapter marking. For the four shortish tracks that make up the majority of the record (numbers 2 through 5), Rivers plays a different instrument on each one: flute ("Torch"), soprano ("Pulse"), piano ("Flux") and tenor ("Surge"), and on the long opening track, "Shockwave," he starts on piano and then shifts to tenor. Waves being a studio document, these episodes are clearly demarcated here, but the same sort of transitions were taking place onstage as well. Sure, the band may not have plotted out where it was going to begin—only that Rivers was going to start on piano—but once it did begin, there was a logic in place that dictated the subsequent flow.

On "Shockwave," you can really hear how Rivers's multi-instrumentalism guides the band's improvising practice. Rivers starts alone at the piano; Barker enters with small hand cymbals around 2:00, and then Holland comes in with a quasi-vamp at 2:18, giving the piece a real skeleton. The trio accelerates around 4:30, setting the stage for Daley's entrance, and the band explores this quartet formation for a bit. At 6:10, Rivers drops out, changing the texture drastically and leaving Daley to duet with Holland, as Barker offers subtle accents. Even if you haven't heard Waves before, if you're a Sam Rivers aficionado, you probably know what's about to happen: The leader is going to roar in on a different ax. The pause is utilitarian—Rivers needs a moment to switch—but it's also musical; even the pause inherent in the instrument swap becomes compositional, an interlude before the next chapter. Sure enough, Rivers enters on tenor at around 7:10 (he does play an ascending pattern, but to me, it sounds more like a favorite lick rather than a specific prewritten theme), and pretty soon, the band is sprinting along in a happy frenzy. The drama of bringing instruments in and out, of the band coalescing around Rivers, and filling in the space when he's absent, it's all part of way these groups operated. They were not just improvising; they were composing sets from scratch.

Each of the other pieces on Waves has its own clearly demarcated sound space. "Torch" picks up where "Shockwave" leaves off, tempo-wise, but the shift to flute changes the texture completely. "Pulse" slows things down to an abstracted-backbeat grind, with Rivers getting funky on soprano. "Flux" veers into a kind of chamber improv, built around dabs of subtle color from the leader's piano and Holland's singing arco work. And the tenor feature "Surge" flashes back to the high-energy grit of the second half of "Shockwave." The pieces all work together as a suite: 45 minutes of free playing with a purpose.

Even late in his life, as he was busy serving his exacting compositional muse at the helm of the Rivbea Orchestra, Rivers was still practicing this kind of self-regimented free improv in a working-band setting. One album I'd recommend highly is Celebration, from 2004, which features Rivers's trusty Orlando-based working trio with fellow multi-instrumentalists Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole. Even more so than the ’70s bands, this group committed itself to discipline within spontaneity, creating diverse, expertly paced suites in real time. Celebration is probably the best document of the band's shape-shifting dynamism, of the way it could sound like a traditional free-jazz trio one minute (with Rivers on sax, Mathews on bass and Cole on drums) and then a chamber ensemble the next (with Mathews switching to bass-clarinet and Cole to tenor).

To me, this drive for coherence and variety, even in an inherently experimental idiom, ties into Rivers's overall good-naturedness. There's little of the imposing, stone-faced, even audience-defying free-jazz warrior in him. Even when he was playing free, Rivers was playing for the people, and thus he cared about pacing, about the way one piece flowed into the next, about timely endings and transitions, about variety. And he forged his small-group discipline around these ideals. His collaborators internalized them, until they were able to create not just sound, but real music from scratch, and not just discrete episodes, but coherent strings of episodes, lasting the length of a club set. In a sense you could say that Rivers's small-group work tamed free jazz, made it digestible, but the man was such a galvanizing, tempestuous player that staleness was out of the question. As a small-group bandleader, his achievement was to harness "energy music," give it form, spontaneous arrangement—to give even the non-connoisseur a way in. He wanted to improvise, but he cared if you were listening. Even at his most abstract, Sam Rivers wanted to connect.

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