The Man Who Made Avant-Garde Jazz Accessible

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The New York Sun

Sam Rivers clearly didn’t show up for work the day they decided avant-garde jazz was supposed to be harsh and un-listenable. Whereas much of what is known as “downtown,” “postmodern,” “free,” or “experimental” jazz deliberately excludes all but the most hardcore followers, the music of Mr. Rivers is every bit as entertaining and accessible as that of his former boss, Miles Davis. Accordingly, Mr. Rivers is this year’s recipient of the Vision Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and he will perform two special sets as part of that festival on Wednesday night.

The admiration for Mr. Rivers’s most famous work – “Beatrice” – proves what an unusual amount of acceptance the 82-year-old saxophonist has received. Mr. Rivers introduced “Beatrice” on his debut album, the 1964 classic “Fuchsia Swing Song” and over the last 40 years it has rivaled Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” in popularity. There have been at least 75 different recordings of this lovely ballad, including a half-dozen versions by trumpeter Chet Baker and outstanding renditions by tenor saxophone giants Joe Henderson and Stan Getz.

Mr. Rivers was born in Oklahoma in 1923, and grew up in Chicago and Little Rock, Ark. He was already playing tenor in the style of the great swing icons Lester Young and Don Byas when he joined the Navy. In the service, he got a hold of a V-Disc of “Blowing the Blues Away” by Billy Eckstine’s groundbreaking orchestra – and experienced a musical epiphany.

“I was shocked out of my smug complacency,” Mr. Rivers wrote in 1999. “Here was a trumpet with a completely unorthodox style … it was strange, but it fit, it was humorous but profoundly serious. It was rhythmically complex with intimidating technical virtuosity and notes on the outer fringes of the chord. It was a revelation.” He later learned that the trumpeter was Dizzy Gillespie.

After the war, Mr. Rivers settled in Boston. He became part of that city’s burgeoning bebop scene, working with pianist Jaki Byard, trumpeter and bandleader Herb Pomeroy, and many others. He also played regularly with the astonishing 13-year-old drum prodigy Tony Williams, and it was through Williams and his boss, Miles Davis, that Mr. Rivers at last was “discovered.” (While many of the regular Beantown players were captured on recordings, Mr. Rivers appears not to have set foot in a studio until he was nearly 40.)

In 1964, Mr. Rivers moved to New York to work with the Big Apple’s avant-garde musicians, but thanks to Williams’s recommendation, Davis hired him for a tour of Japan that summer. When they returned to New York, Mr. Rivers played on “Lifetime,” Williams’s first album as leader. The album was recorded on Blue Note, and Mr. Rivers went on to do a series of albums for the label. The first was “Fuchsia Swing Song,” which saw him backed by a rhythm section comprised of his Boston colleague Byard as well as Williams and Ron Carter.

Mr. Rivers soon found himself in the same category as two other pioneering tenor saxophonists on the Blue Note label: Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. Like them, he constantly looked for new forms and new ways to use harmony and melody: “Cyclic Episode, for example,” is a short, hummable line based on the idea of a cycle of sevenths, while “Downstairs Blues Upstairs” is an old-fashioned blues with a futuristic edge to it.

The appeal of “Beatrice” is easy to see: It features a beautiful, direct, and memorable melody attached to a set of challenging chords. A lovely ballad that Mr. Rivers dedicated to his wife, the piece is the same 32-bar length as most classic love songs, but instead of being three A sections and a bridge, it is essentially two 16-bar sections. The tune is rhythmically catchy, and short notes alternate with long ones while the changing harmonies make heavy use of the major 11th and fluctuate between F major and F minor. The tune is strong enough that such master tenors as Henderson and Mr. Getz found their own identity within the piece without overwhelming its original intent.

The stint with Davis was Mr. Rivers’s most mainstream venture. Thereafter he collaborated with Blue Note’s more experimental players and composers, such as Andrew Hill and Bobby Hutcherson, and by the end of the 1960s he had toured and recorded with the most extreme avant-gardists around- Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. In the 1970s, he began a long and fruitful collaboration with the bassist (and fellow Davis Quintet vet) Dave Holland, which produced over a dozen albums.

Mr. Rivers also helped found the loft movement; his Studio Rivbea was one of the first such homes for avant-garde jazz. This was an era in which artists, for the first time, assumed control of their work,not only composing their own music, but producing their own albums and even running their own performance spaces. The bulk of the best music of the 1970s was found many stories in the air in the lofts of pre-gentrified Soho and TriBeCa – and Mr. Rivers was in the thick of it.

Another of Mr. Rivers’s many identities was as a big-band leader. He had been writing for and rehearsing a big band comprised of New York’s finest cutting-edge musicians for roughly a decade when he first recorded the ensemble on his 1974 album “Crystals” (Impulse!). But opportunities to record the large-format group have been rare.

In 1998, Mr. Rivers teamed up with Steve Coleman to record two of the finest albums of postmodern orchestral music, the well-titled “Inspiration” and “Culmination.” The albums, released by BMG, by the Rivbea All-Star Orchestra, feature a brilliant line-up – the saxophones alone feature Mr. Coleman, Chico Freeman, Greg Osby and Hammiett Bluiett – and show where Mr. Rivers’s music can go with the right men playing it.

Although there are moments – many moments – of pure chaos on Mr. Rivers’s three main big-band albums, you never forget for a second that you’re listening to the music of a distinct and visionary composer who puts his stamp on everything. Each moment of seeming randomness is balanced by long ensemble passages that are meticulously worked out beforehand.

“It’s an outlet for improvisers. I like to write and I could write it all out, but then I’d be worried whether it would be jazz,” Mr. Rivers said in a 1999 interview with Ed Hazell. “Jazz depends on improvisers, so I give everyone a solo. I can swing, so why should I leave out a part of my heritage, my experience? I can play the blues,I have been in bebop bands, symphonies. I like to bring out all these experiences.”

Although Mr. Rivers currently lives in Orlando, Fla., he is constantly writing new music and looking to the future. Just the same, a highlight of “Inspiration” is a big-band treatment of “Beatrice.” Rather than having mellowed with age, the old gal is louder, heavier, and harder than ever before. Not to mention more exciting and fun. I, for one, am glad that Sam Rivers didn’t get the memo that said postmodern jazz should be difficult to listen to.

The New York Sun

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