May 25, 2024

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Sam Rivers, was one of the last messengers from the 1940s bebop era and the classic decades of jazz: Photos, Videos

25.09. – Happy Birthday !!! The multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, was one of the last messengers from the 1940s bebop era and the classic decades of jazz.

Accomplished on tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, piano and viola, he wanted only to remain at the sharp edge of music-making. Rivers included Miles Davis, BB King and Wilson Pickett among his employers, and made a lasting impact on those who worked with him, heard him play or attended one of his influential music workshops.

Lean, bony and unflinchingly focused, Rivers looked in his earlier years like a walk-on performer in a spaghetti western. A sophisticated and theoretically advanced composer, teacher and large-scale orchestrator as well as a virtuoso performer, he became a key player (with his wife, Beatrice) on New York’s dynamic Soho loft-jazz scene in the 1970s. Their Studio Rivbea was the movement’s best-known establishment of the era.

Sam Rivers
Rivers was associated with New York’s dynamic Soho loft-jazz scene in the 1970s. Photograph: Philippe Levy-Stab/Corbis

Like his saxophone contemporaries John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, he was a fearless mould-breaker and explorer of new forms who was nonetheless profoundly influenced by that most fundamental of black American musical forms, the blues. He told the Guardian in 1981 that it was harder to play the blues well than the most technically demanding contemporary music, and a sense of the continuity of jazz and blues pervaded everything he played, however radical.

Rivers directed and worked in jazz ensembles of all sizes, but his impact was rarely more telling than when his majestically hoarse-toned tenor saxophone was accompanied only by bass and drums (the bassist Dave Holland was a particularly congenial partner), and he would improvise fast and sinewy long-lined melodies, informed by modern classical music as well as jazz, for extended stretches without cliche or repetition. “I have evolved into the avant garde whereas some people have jumped into it with no history and no background,” he said. Fiercely independent and disciplined, Rivers assiduously studied others in order to find his own path through the spaces between them.

He was born in El Reno, Oklahoma. His father, Samuel, sang spirituals with a travelling gospel group called the Silvertone Quartet. His pianist mother, Lillian, was the group’s accordionist. Sam’s grandfather Marshall Taylor was a church minister and musician who had published the pioneering work A Collection of Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies for black congregations in 1882.

Sam Rivers performing in 2003
Rivers performing in 2003. Photograph: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Rivers studied the piano as a child but switched to the saxophone in his early teens. He moved to Arkansas, served in the US navy and then attended the Boston Conservatory from 1947 to 1952. Through the 50s and 60s, he performed with many of the biggest names in jazz. He appeared on Davis’s Miles in Tokyo album in 1964 and soon afterwards made his leadership debut on the Blue Note label with the innovative Fuchsia Swing Song. The rhythm section was Davis’s own inspirational pairing of the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony Williams. At this point, Rivers was steering a course between an earthy and swinging hard bop style and a looser approach employing a more personal harmonic language. Working with the pianist Cecil Taylor later in the decade accelerated his progress towards his own perspectives on both improvised and composed music.

Rivers recorded for the adventurous Impulse! company and various European labels in the 1970s, establishing increasingly fruitful relationships between complex, suite-like compositions and improvisation. He displayed growing diversity on tenor and soprano saxophones and flute, ranging from unaccompanied solo performances to big bands. The Rivbea Orchestra continued after its namesake studio closed in 1979, and from the early 80s Rivers led a woodwind ensemble without a rhythm section that included the avant-funk sax star Steve Coleman in its lineup. Between 1987 and 1991 he often performed with Dizzy Gillespie, and it was on tour with Gillespie in Florida in 1991 that he met a group of jazz-devoted musicians from Walt Disney World who knew his earlier work and invited him to reconvene the Rivbea band in Orlando.

Rivers, the bassist Doug Matthews and the drummer Anthony Cole were the core of the new band, and they created some of the most powerful and original music of Rivers’ life, both in the big ensemble and as a standalone trio. Rivers released the landmark solo recording Portrait in 1997 (on which he played the piano and all the reeds instruments, and also sang); participated in a memorable duo session with the German pianist Alex von Schlippenbach; and fronted a big band assembled by Coleman for the albums Inspiration (1999) and Culmination (2000). In 2001 he took a trenchantly concise saxophone role on the young pianist Jason Moran’s album Black Stars, and in 2006 he performed at a Sam Rivers Day as part of New York’s Vision festival.

Beatrice died in 2005. Rivers is survived by his daughters, Monique, Cindy and Traci; his son, Samuel; five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Samuel Carthorne Rivers, jazz musician, born 25 September 1923; died 26 December 2011

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