“I play the history of Jazz, because I’ve been through it all.” – Sam Rivers in an interview for NPR’s Jazz Profiles.
Word is trickling out this morning that the great multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers passed away yesterday. I have been a lover of his singular music since I first heard his 1964 masterwork Fuchsia Swing Song in high school, and I have followed his career with great interest as he continued to perform blistering, uncompromising music well into his 80s. Rivers’ incredible career spanned more than sixty years, and his remarkable tenor technique embodied the hard-swinging but luxurious approach of players like Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas, along with the technical breakthroughs of Charlie Parker, but always remained wholly original.
Rivers belongs in that rarified group of musical polymaths whose style remains deeply rooted in tradition, while constantly incorporating, and often anticipating, the innovations of younger generations. Rivers played free jazz before that loaded term even entered the lexicon.
My favorite Sam will always be his Blue Note masterworks from the mid-1960s — notably Fuchsia and Contours — followed closely by his mind-blowing contribution to Miles Davis’ live in Tokyo LP, his ecstatic collaborations with Dave Holland, Barry Altschul, Thurman Barker and others in the 1970s Loft era in NYC, his rewarding later-life work with young innovators like the Danish drummer Kreston Osgood, and, of course, Rivers’ long-time iconoclastic work with his Orlando-based big band.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Sam backstage at The Iridium in NYC around 2006 where he signed my well worn copy of Fuchsia Swing Song. We didn’t talk long, but it was clear that the warmth that radiates from his often thorny music was also an inherent part of his personality. Moments later, he took the stage with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille blew us all away with a gorgeous rendition of his signature piece, Beatrice.
You will be sorely missed, Sam.
In 2007, I covered one of Sam’s performances at Columbia University for Jazz Notes. You can read my review of that show here.
Also around that time, I was hired to write a biographical piece on Rivers for the site Jazz.com. You can read that piece here.