When I read about the departure of Sam Rivers (September 25, 1923 – December 26, 2011) I do not wanted to write about him at first sight. The reason was my previous short essays about the loft era on my blog Complete Communion, and more than that, the difficulty in writing something short about an entire life devoted to music - not only his, but the music of an entire generation of creative musicians - avoiding common topics, repetitions, and lack of a close examination.
But after the article I issued yesterday on Stefano Scodanibbio, I felt the urge of putting some short notes on a musician that was more than a symbol for an entire generation that chose to deal directly with music more than becoming an institution, and that was one of the true animators of an entire, and still avoided - a complete study on the subject is still to come after 30 years - 'movement', or so. I want to start something more focused on Rivers himeslf here, while reproposing what I was writing about the 'loft era' some months ago, when I was still residing in Italy [see the first link on this article].
Born in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1923, and subsequently residing in Boston, Massachussets, where he studied composition at the local Conservatory in 1947, Sam Rivers started playing with Quincy Jones and Tadd Dameron amongst others. A soprano and tenor saxophonist, flutist, bass clarinetist and pianist, in 1959 he started playing with the then 13 years old prodigy drummer Tony Williams, collaborating also briefly with the second Miles Davis quintet, after the departure of John Coltrane and before Wayne Shorter's arrival.
With the Blue Note label, Rivers gave shape to his first masterpieces. Blue Note at the time tried to give life with Rudy Van Gelder to a kind of 'third line' between his classic modernist approach to jazz and the then rising 'new thing' wave. Sam Rivers, musicians as vibist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Andrew Hill, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Richard Davis, multireedist Eric Dolphy, were more or less completely involved in this artistic operation. As issued on AllAboutJazz Rivers profile:
"Rivers's music is rooted in bebop, but he is an adventurous player, adept at free jazz. The first of his Blue Note albums, Fuchsia Swing Song, is widely regarded as a masterpiece of an approach sometimes called “inside-outside”. The performer frequently obliterates the explicit harmonic framework (”going outside”) but retains a hidden link so as to be able to return to it in a seamless fashion. Rivers brought the conceptual tools of bebop harmony to a new level in this process, united at all times with the ability to “tell a story” which Lester Young had laid down as a benchmark for the jazz improviser."
As a true creative figure, Sam Rivers was a real collector of different energies and branches of the jazz music of his time. But with his Studio RivBea based in Bond Street, he began the so-called 'loft era', that started in 1972, with the counter-festival to George Wein's Newport in New York, and ended in 1983 approximately with the triumph of the Reaganomics after melting together (not always under Rivers' direction or responsibility) jazz, minimalism, avant garde, contemporary music, pop, no wave, post punk, disco, poetry, ethnic instruments.
Striving for taking control over shows and records, and to manage an independent career, mixing different approaches and constantly rehearsing in order to be immediately ready to whatever session or concert available, and open to whatever melting of styles even outside the boundaries of strictly jazz and improvised music, the 'loft era' was the zenith of the spirit of the Big Apple and of its melting pot.
But even beyond the lofts, Sam Rivers continued to affirm his personal vision of music. Even with a label so strongly connotated as ECM, Rivers was able to paint a jazz "in wide strokes and bold colors". Take as an examle both Contrasts (1979) with AACM trombonist and composer George Lewis, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Thurman Barker, and the widely recognized masterpiece Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1973) issued under Holland's name and featuring the composer and reedist Anthony Braxton and bassist Barry Altschul. For a first recognition of Rivers' and the loft-era music, those records, the Blue Notes, and the 5-lps issued by Alan Douglas - the famous Jimi Hendrix producer - under the name of Wildflowers: Loft Jazz New York 1976, are part of the larger and more faithful picture of it all. Since the vast Rivers discography is still for the most part not reissued, readers can start consulting the Sam Rivers sessionography carefully compiled by Rick Lopez.