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Sam Rivers (1923-2011)

A friend remembers the local legend

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Around the same time, the Rivers clan moved into a two-story space on Bond Street in downtown Manhattan, and the basement became Studio Rivbea, the gold-standard loft-jazz venue for creation and experimentation by non-commercial players. As he rolled through the early ’70s, Rivers’ small groups were touring Europe and North America extensively, developing his concept of spontaneous composition – no pre-set anything to start, unfolding a wide-open palette of melodies, idioms and rhythms each time. Committed to his vision, Rivers largely abandoned the prospect of contributing to the standards books, leaving major festival appearances and magazine covers behind.

A number of rhythm combinations backed Rivers’ earliest rehearsals and occasional appearances in Orlando, but he found the most distinct formulation since his vaunted Dave Holland–Barry Altschul trio in bassist Doug Mathews and drummer Anthony Cole. Together, they created an almost vaudevillian, recombinant band offering free bop, out funk, ballads, ruminant impressionism and, of course, the fire. Knowing Rivers’ stubbornly persistent career path, his commitment to his telepaths in the Orlando trio and Rivbea Orchestra wasn’t surprising, but I bore witness to how it kept him from climbing all the way up the grandmaster/comeback-kid ladder favored by editors and producers in search of an engaging narrative. Record dates and festival offers with jazz stars were roundly crumpled up; Rivers’ loyalty cost him much, including a grail-like Verve Records contract offer in the late-’90s and appearances at many international improv round-robins.

As one of those “other music” geeks, I was commonly surprised and internally entertained by how many citizens took advantage of Rivers’ appearances, and doubly so when musicians’ styles and output were redirected by Sam’s radiance. The jazz players were let out of the barn, free from the grumbling, Sansabelted jazz police, unmediated within Sam’s orbit. Post-punk, punk and funk bands became more experimental and far-reaching having interacted with him. Some of the DJs of the halcyon 1990s Orlando dance scene inserted less surefire language into their sets and stepped closer to the edge.

Sam Rivers trended on Twitter on the day after his passing, and mentions of Beatrice, loft jazz and free jazz cascaded in. A five-missive suite from Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea ended with, “It is my aspiration in the Chili Peppers to make people feel as good as Sam Rivers made me feel.”

Back to you, tertiary arts market townie. You might have your stories in place about the Rivbea Orchestra residencies at Pinkie Lee’s, the Sapphire Supper Club, the old Will’s Pub or the Plaza Theatre. Possibly, you risked life and limb on S.R. 520 late at night to see those unlikely, formative trio sets at the Lazy Bean in Melbourne. If so, then you know better than anyone that we were all very lucky.

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