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Big Band Master

The Peabody Jazz Orchestra celebrates the music of Sam Rivers

HELLO LEATHER FLOP HAT: Sam Rivers brings one of the most unsung big-band books in jazz to town.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/30/2005

Orlando is smack in the middle of Florida, on the interior flatlands where citrus groves and strip malls stretch in every direction. It is best known as the home of the four Disney World theme parks and the Universal Studios resort, but it is also home to something unexpected: two of the most exciting bands in contemporary jazz, both of them run by the genre’s greatest living composer, Sam Rivers.

Orlando is a good place to remain hidden from the rest of the jazz world, and the Sam Rivers Trio and the Rivbea Orchestra have created a stunning body of work without much attention from anyone else. An exception came in 1998, when Steve Coleman pulled together some of the best horn soloists in New York (himself, Greg Osby, Chico Freeman, Hamiet Bluiett, Ray Anderson, and others) to join Rivers’ trio in playing Rivers’ big-band compositions during a week of live shows that climaxed with two days in a Brooklyn studio.

The result was a pair of RCA albums, 1999’s Inspiration and 2000’s Culmination, that won Grammy nominations and wound up on top-10 lists all over the nation. The dense, teeming music descended into churning chaos again and again, re-emerging each time with cleansed grandeur. Passages of hard-hitting funk created rocky islands that the music could dive off of and swim back to. And yet a sturdy, almost-classical architecture underpinned the seeming free-for-all; themes bloomed, were plucked apart, and reassembled with mathematical logic.

After that brief turn in the national spotlight, Rivers returned to Orlando, his two hometown bands, and the obscurity of infrequent releases on tiny labels. But Gary Thomas, who played tenor saxophone on those two discs, couldn’t get that heady music out of his head. Thomas, a Baltimore native who heads up the Peabody Conservatory Jazz Department, put Rivers in touch with Michael Formanek, who runs the Peabody Jazz Orchestra. As a result, the 81-year-old Rivers brings his trio to Baltimore on Friday. The first set features the trio by itself, but in the second set the trio joins the Peabody Jazz Orchestra to re-create the music from Inspiration and Culmination.

“If you think of all the big-band music that gets played year after year, it’s astonishing that Sam’s music sometimes gets forgotten,” Formanek says. “This music is dense with ideas being developed constantly. Just on a compositional level, there’s so much going on in this music that you can come back time and time again and discover new things. It’s big and beautiful and over the top, a wealth of great ideas. Besides having a great dance band most of the time, Ellington also did extended suites and orchestral music. Sam’s music is like that.”

In 1991, at age 68, Rivers had already had a full career. He had discovered a 13-year-old drummer named Tony Williams in 1959; he had led a Boston-based quartet featuring Williams, Henry Grimes, and Hal Galper in the early ’60s; he had toured Japan with Miles Davis in 1964; he had recorded five landmark albums for Blue Note between 1964 and 1967 (the first two, Fuchsia Swing Song and Contours, were reissued last year); he had toured with the Cecil Taylor Unit in 1969; he had recorded five terrific albums for Impulse between 1971 and 1975; and he had pioneered the New York loft scene of the late ’70s. In 1991, Rivers was planning to leave the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet after four years and to move out of New York, but he wasn’t ready to retire.

“I hated the cold in New York,” Rivers recalls, “and I wanted to move somewhere warm. I had offers to teach in New Mexico, Colorado, North Carolina, and Chicago, but I didn’t want to teach. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs there is. I respect teachers—my heart goes out to them, but I don’t like it. I wanted to go somewhere where I could compose and have musicians who would play my music. I had come through Orlando with Dizzy and met some musicians there. They told me, ‘Mr. Rivers, if you come down here, we’ll have a band waiting for you.’ And the first day I was down there, the band was ready for me.”

Orlando, it turned out, was one of the few places in America where reed and brass players could hold down full-time, nontraveling gigs. The theme parks all had outdoor shows that employed pit musicians, and when these players said they were tired of playing “Mickey Mouse music,” they weren’t being metaphorical. These musicians, plus the music faculty at the University of Central Florida, gave Rivers an orchestra that could sight-read fluently and that was hungry for some substantial music.

Rivers writes some beautiful melodies for his themes (“Beatrice,” for example, was already a jazz standard when it was reprised for Inspiration), but he often ties up those themes in knotty harmonies and plays them over grooves that range from crisp swing to bottom-heavy funk. To handle these tonal shifts and the open-ended improvisations they set up, Rivers needed a rhythm section that was as flexible as it was versatile. He found it in Anthony Cole and Doug Mathews.

“Anthony came to Orlando from Detroit about the same time I arrived from New York,” Rivers says. “His uncle is Nat King Cole and his mother Linda was a background singer at Motown. Doug is a native Floridian, which is a rarity. We gravitated together at a jam session, and I found they were very talented. I had to teach them how to play my music, the same way I had to teach Dave Holland in the ’70s. Dave had just left Miles Davis, but my music was much more complicated, so he had a lot of catching up to do. If you’re used to reading one book and you start reading another book, you have to adapt. It’s the same with music.”

Rivers plays tenor sax, soprano sax, flute, and piano; Cole plays drums, tenor sax, and piano; and Mathews plays acoustic bass, electric bass, and bass clarinet. On albums such as 1995’s Concept and 2001’s Firestorm, both released on Rivers’ own Rivbea label, the trio mixes and matches instruments in various combinations, and this allows Rivers to write in formats ranging from quiet chamber music to caterwauling free jazz to danceable R&B. No matter what the style, the music constantly changes as one idea is quickly replaced by another.

The Sam Rivers Trio is also the core of the Rivbea Orchestra, which rehearses weekly. Sometimes they gather at the local union hall; sometimes they hold open rehearsals at Will’s, an alternative-rock club in Orlando. The big band’s double-CD album Aurora comes out this year on either Rivbea or Palmetto. Rivers has also contributed guest solos to such recent records as Jason Moran’s 2001 Black Stars, NOJO’s 2004 City of Neighbourhoods, and Adam Rudolph’s 2004 Vista.

“I don’t want to bore myself,” Rivers says. “So I’m always writing new music. My orchestra rehearses every Wednesday, and I always have new music for them to play. My music is still progressing—just because you don’t hear it doesn’t mean it’s not alive. The music is complicated, but it’s about emotion. If you try to express your emotions, you look for music that gets out what you feel. It’s not a science project. The great musicians are those who can reach people, who can make people feel something.

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