Remembering Sam Rivers

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Upon hearing the sad news that the visionary jazz saxophonist and flutist Sam Rivers died just after Christmas at the age of 88, I started scrounging for the notes I’d taken at a special guest appearance he made with pianist Jason Moran on October 4, 2001. It took a while to sift through the scribbling, but the exercise led me to a short piece I wrote about the experience. That is took place at Walker Art Center, a modern art museum in Minneapolis, was particularly fitting, since the composer and bandleader will forever be remembered for his abstract expressions. Here are a few graphs from the review, which originally ran inJazziz magazine:

This much anticipated, one-night, one-time only gig was inspired by Moran’s third solo effort for Blue Note records, Black Stars, which features Nasheet Waits, bassist Tarus Mateen [Scott Colley played bass in Minneapolis], and Rivers on tenor, soprano, and flute. Like the CD, the 90-minutes set was an often stormy, sometimes sun-drenched, but always soulful journey to the sharp corners that define the outskirts of modern jazz. Unlike the studio summit, which showcases Moran’s promise as writer and River’s concision (which, like the hole of his career, is criminally underappreciated), the Walker performance bore a palpable urgency, a hang-it-all-out-there vibe characterized by telepathic teamwork and fearless individualism. In fact, after listening to Black Stars, I thought Rivers, who pushed Blue Note toward the avant-garde in the ’60s and fueled the New York loft scene in the ’70s, might have been holding back a little on the recording. I even wondered if it was Moran, not Rivers, who should’ve been billed as a special guest.

After watching the two of them onstage, though, there is no question that the pairing was not a commercial conceit, but a marriage of like-minded artists. Like Rivers, Moran uses the full range of his instrument, belies scholarly pretension, and manages to be as musical as he is adventurous.

Ultimately, though, it was Rivers, pushing himself physically, pulling at the edge of time-tested tunes such as his own “Inspiration” and “Unity,” who left the most stirring impression. Just ask Waits, who sat behind his kit, perpetually grinning in disbelief as Rivers played off his every snap, crackle, and pop. (Waits himself was an unexpected treat, working his equipment’s limitations with a harmonic sensibility rare among young drummers.) On soprano, Rivers conjured visions of Coltrane, searching for spiritual release. On flute, he was cat-like, skipping and scatting seamlessly above the fray. And on tenor, he jump-roped from register to register so quickly, so smoothly, that his most experimental wanderings seemed downright lyrical.

“It’s the guy’s integrity,” Moran told the crowd. “That’s what you want to emulate. He’s just so upfront and direct with everything he does.”

During the show’s high mark, a delicate duet featuring the veteran and the young lion, the two swayed gently, as if they had played together for years–as if they knew they may never share the stage again. Titled “For Peace,” the song paid tribute to a friend of Moran’s who was killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks. If you closed your eyes and let your imagination ride along, you could envision a world so beautiful, so harmonious, that such violence truly would be unthinkable.

Shout outs to photographer Mike Dvorak, who covered the show with me that night, and NPR’s A Blog Supreme, which recently posted a link to an exhaustive Rivers discography.

Image byTom Marcello , licensed under Creative Commons

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