Monday, January 16, 2012

R.I.P. Sam Rivers

The great multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader Sam Rivers died Monday, December 26 at the age of 88. Rivers' death makes for the third important jazz figure to pass in the final months of 2011, along with drummer Paul Motian and trombonist/composer Bob Brookmeyer.

To celebrate Rivers' legacy, we are featuring him on the AccuJazz Saxophone channel. Along with the usual lineup of hundreds of jazz saxophonists of every style and era, you'll hear an extra large dose of Rivers' playing. We've included his well-loved 1960s Blue Note output as well as his adventurous big band work and albums where Rivers appears as a sideman with artists like Miles Davis, Bobby Hutcherson and Dave Holland.

Whether playing swinging post-bop with organist Larry Young or grand-scale avant-garde jazz with his own Studio Rivbea Orchestra, Rivers always played the saxophone (or flute, or piano, or whatever else was in his hands) with strikingly clear articulation and sonic focus. His music reflected a rigorous and uncompromisingly unique vision, whether creating stirring improvisations seemingly out of thin air or constructing intricate soundscapes for other musicians to interpret. His idiosyncratic composition style, which fused complex written material with free improvisation, influenced generations of adventurous jazz musicians including Steve Coleman and Jason Moran.

For a musician often affixed with the "avant-garde" label, Rivers was quite versatile: he played with bebop pianist/composer Tadd Dameron early in his career, played briefly in Miles Davis' renowned 1960s quintet, and even toured in Dizzy Gillespie's band. There is also a broad stylistic palette among music recorded under his own name. Consider the gorgeous melodicism of 1964's "Beatrice" (Rivers' most famous composition) and the frenetic energy of "Capricorn Rising," a 1975 album co-led by Rivers and pianist Don Pullen.

While many octogenarian jazz musicians find their skills steadily waning, Rivers was arguably still playing at his peak up until his death. He spent the last two decades of his life in Orlando, where he led a version of his famed Rivbea Orchestra. This video of a 2010 performance by that group displays not only Rivers' vital sax playing, but his continued compositional ingenuity and playful rapport with his band. Isn't it just great to see an old guy so happy doing what he does?

Enjoy our Sam Rivers feature on the Saxophone channel and look below for further reading:

-Nate Chinen's obituary in the New York Times
-Peter Hum's blog post, with some great videos
-Hank Shteamer's post, with recommended listening

Here's the list of albums featuring Sam Rivers to listen for on the Saxophone channel:

As a leader

-Fuchsia Swing Song
-Dimensions and Extensions
-Violet Violets

As a sideman

-Miles Davis: Miles in Tokyo
-Larry Young: Into Somethin'
-Bobby Hutcherson: Dialogue
-Tony Williams: Spring
-Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds
-Don Pullen: Capricorn Rising