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Sam Rivers Celebrates His 80th at the Jazz Bakery

Rex  Butters By

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Sam Rivers brought his boundless goodwill and energy to the Jazz Bakery for a week to celebrate his 80th birthday with adoring fans. The amazing Rivers played two sets a night, and jammed and recorded with local musicians after hours. The ebullient octogenarian performed with his longtime trio featuring Doug Matthews and Anthony Cole. Like Rivers, both Matthews and Cole are multi-instrumentalists yielding a variety of configurations, sometimes within the same piece. Matthews played acoustic bass, six string electric bass, and bass clarinet. Cole took turns on drums, piano, and tenor sax. With Rivers covering his usual tenor sax, soprano, piano, flute, and whoops, the band had a broad tonal palette from which to color their creations.

Rivers kicked off the evening on tenor, running hard with Mathews on electric bass and Cole on drums urging him on. Cole played a small set with one cymbal and a high-hat. After proving their ability to burn, they launched a ballad with Cole providing sensitive piano accompaniment to Rivers’ soulful tenor and Matthews’ acoustic bass. Rivers and Matthews then left the stage, and Cole wove simple and spacious melodies on piano that thickened into powerful density.

Returning to the stage, Rivers picked up the flute, played an exploratory solo humming as he went. Matthews played bass clarinet and Cole joined him on tenor creating impromptu arrangements. A beautiful wind trio emerged with Cole conversing with Rivers and Matthews inventing basslines. Cole and Rivers left the stage and Matthews played a moving acoustic bass solo displaying easy technical grace.

Moving to piano, Rivers played solo. He began with a romantic tune that quickly diffused and scattered into ten different melodies. Like a riverboat card shark, Rivers repeatedly shuffled the tune and brought it back again to its pastoral origins. Finally, Rivers cued the rhythm section and it came back with a vengeance. Rivers’ fingers blurred on the keyboard, then he whooped and sang during Cole's drum solo.

With over ten years experience playing together, all shifts and transitions seemed second nature. Despite his avant-garde credentials, Rivers’ music is inclusive. After a brief intermission, he reappeared on stage playing hard swirling two-handed runs on piano, driven by Matthews and Cole. Whooping and howling again during Cole's drum solo, Rivers switched to soprano with the rhythm section still seething. On tenor, Rivers played a straight-ahead and urbane piece.

Cole took a solo turn on piano, devising washes of sound with foot firmly on the sustain pedal. Rivers retrieved his flute, and Matthews and Cole revived the wind trio moving between counterpoint and freedom. With Mathews back on electric bass they shifted into a funk flute piece with Rivers dancing and singing like a man sixty years younger. After the musicians took their bows and left the stage, Rivers returned for a joyous final curtain call to acknowledge the entire audience, now its feet and spontaneously singing “Happy Birthday.”


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