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Artist Profiles

Sam Rivers: High Octane Octogenarian

By Published: April 6, 2004
During the ‘80s Rivers lead several progressive electric quartets featuring guitarists Kevin Eubanks, Darryl Thompson and Ed Cherry. It was the latter’s membership in his quartet that led Rivers to a somewhat surprising stint with Dizzy Gillespie. “Ed Cherry was in my band and Dizzy called him, so I just called because Ed Cherry said that Dizzy was making up a new band,” Rivers recalls. “I just called up Dizzy. I said, ‘Merry Christmas, Dizzy, [it was Christmas], if you ever need a tenor player give me a call.’ He said, ‘What’s your name. What’s your number?’ And the next week he called me. It was the start of a new thing. Ignacio Berroa on drums. John Lee on bass. Ed Cherry, myself and Dizzy. Very good group, an excellent group, I loved playing with them. I was also with the United Nations band, Dizzy’s orchestra. I stayed with Dizzy for four years.”

It was during his tenure with Gillespie that Rivers relocated to Orlando. “We were traveling all around and I could have gone anywhere,” he remembers. “We were planning to leave New York. So I could have gone to New Mexico or Arizona or California, you know, Seattle. I had offers from all of those places to teach. But I didn’t want to teach and the musicians down here they said we have enough musicians, if you want to come down here there’s a big band waiting for you with your music. And that’s why I came here; the musicians were so good. All the musicians in my orchestra, my jazz orchestra, are all professors of music. They all teach here. It’s quite an [organization]. I mean I’m very fortunate because I can bring in all my music, anything I write, these musicians are able to play it the first time down. So I mean it’s a very, very, very great experience for me.”

Rivers more traditional orchestral jazz is documented on two Grammy nominated RCA compact discs, Inspiration and Culmination , by his Rivbea All-Star Orchestra. The forthcoming Aurora, by the Orlando orchestra, is more representative of his current work. The nucleus of both ensembles is Rivers’ trio of the past 12 years, with Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole; a group he proudly describes as “unique in the history of jazz.” The union of the three multi-instrumentalists is the most versatile small group making music today, sometimes replicating the style of the leader’s earlier trios and at others resembling the World Saxophone Quartet or Cecil Taylor’s Unit. Rivers explains, “Doug is a classical musician. He reads on bass clarinet, on double bass violin, also on bass guitar and drums. Anthony plays drums; he also plays tenor saxophone and sometimes we have compositions for two pianos with Anthony and myself. And then sometimes Anthony can play the electric bass guitar and Doug plays drums. So we have it all covered. It’s never been done before. And when we’re finished they know it’s unique. They’ll never hear anything like it again their lifetime. Unless they hear me again.”

In a recent concert in San Diego, trombonist George Lewis and pianist Anthony Davis joined the group. At an upcoming engagement at the Iridium Rivers will play in an all-star trio with Jason Moran and Reggie Workman. The saxophonist, who appeared on Workman’s Summit Conference and Cerebral Caverns discs and with Moran on his Black Stars date, would have preferred to perform with his own group, but is nonetheless excited about the appearance. “You don’t need compositions for the trio,” he says. “You really don’t need any music at all, but we do have some themes. We have some melodies we will improvise on and some free things, also. There’s no real set program. We like to surprise ourselves, too. I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going to happen - I like it that way. I look forward to it because I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s far more challenging than if I knew what was going to happen, then it might even get boring.”

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