This morning’s New York Times reported the death of Sam Rivers at the age of 88, providing an obituary by Nate Chinen. According to his daughter, Monique Rivers Williams, Rivers died of pneumonia in Orlando, Florida, on Monday. Rivers is best known for his tenor saxophone work, but his best known sessions also included performances on soprano saxophone and flute. While he is less known than many of his contemporaries, Rivers was a major contributor to avant-garde departures from the bebop movement; and some of his most adventurous work can be found in his Blue Note sessions, compiled into a limited-edition Mosaic anthology that has now sold out its 5000 albums. (For the record I have number 2133.)
Rivers entered the Boston Conservatory of Music in 1947 and then transferred to Boston University, majoring in composition. During one of his gigs in 1959, a thirteen-year-old named Tony Williams sat in as his drummer; and this began the formation of a strong bond between the two. Shortly thereafter the two of them were founding members of the Boston Improvisational Ensemble, formed at the suggestion of a Professor at the Boston Conservatory. This group was exploring the possibilities of free improvisation from a more classical point of view than the approach Ornette Coleman was taking at the time. After Williams was hired by Miles Davis, he lobbied for Rivers to join the group after George Coleman’s departure; but Rivers did not last long. Rivers sense of adventure was more compatible with the likes of Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Paul Bley, and Cecil Taylor, rather than Miles and Art Blakey.
Chinen’s obituary cites Rivers’ first album for Blue Note, Fuchsia Swing Song, as “a landmark of experimental post-bop, with a free-flowing yet structurally sound style.” All the tracks for this album were recorded on December 11, 1964 with Rivers on tenor, Jaki Byard on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Williams on drums. Michael Cuscuna’s notes for the Mosaic anthology provide an excellent historical context for this date:
To put this album in perspective, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman had not recorded since 1961. Coltrane had just released Crescent and would record Love Supreme two days before Sam’s date. Archie Shepp had recorded Four for Trane two months earlier. Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and Andrew Hill’s Black Fire and Judgment were recent releases.
Another side of Rivers’ avant-garde ventures surfaced on March 26, 1999 at the fifth Other Minds Festival in San Francisco. At one of the Festival concerts, Rivers performed a ten-minute free improvisation with trombonist Julian Priester. Rivers played piano for this particular number, and the recording of that performance has a Web page on the site for radiOM.org. By this time Rivers had moved to the Orlando area, where much of his attention was devoted to his big band called the Rivbea Orchestra, named after Studio Rivbea, a performance space in the East Village that he ran in the seventies with his wife Beatrice. Earlier this year Mosaic released a three-CD set (again in limited edition) entitled Sam Rivers and the Rivbea Orchestra – Trilogy, featuring recordings made in 2008 and 2009. Rivers’ last performance took place this past October.