PERFORMANCE OF MAY 3. 1975 at Michigan State University
Modern black music is so rarely available outside of a few major cities that it was a distinct shock to learn (almost by accident) that Rivers and Mitchell were to appear in concert at this large university deep in the Michigan hinterlands. Rivers (with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul) and Mitchell (who brought Gary Schunk, piano; Steve Miller, bass; and Randy Gillespie, percussion) were to play two concerts a night Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in the kiva (a small circular auditorium in the M.S.U. dormitory complex). We caught the earlier performance on Saturday night, and it was apparent that Mitchell’s group especially (his being less of a working band) had benefited from the extended opportunity to work together.
Mitchell opened his set with “Tutankhamen,” a strutting, heavily syncopated Malachi Favors’ composition. Originally composed as a contrabass solo, the work adapted well to Mitchell’s huge bass sax. There were good sparse solos from Mitchell and Miller (and interesting backgrounds from Schunk employing mallets on the piano strings) before all four returned for a jagged, playful restatement of the theme.
Mitchell’s “For Four Improvisers” was more ambitious. It set up a series of variations built on textural rather than strictly melodic, harmonic or rhythmic material. Although by nature something of a collage of group sounds, Mitchell (on bass and curved soprano saxes) and Schunk appeared to advantage. However, “Carefree” (the last work programmed) was far below the standards Mitchell had set so far. The head sounded like an old Jazz Messengers’ composition (part Latin, part swing), and Mitchell’s decision to allow local trumpeter Raymond Smith to sit in further dragged things down. Smith soloed first, producing a series of flurries and held notes with little relation to the tune or the efforts of the rhythm section. When Mitchell finally took over (picking up a chromatic phrase from Schunk), it was too late to save the work. Schunk, incidentally, was here and elsewhere quite inventive, and his broadly humorous accompaniment was refreshing.
After a brief intermission, Rivers, Holland and Altschul filed out. The contrast was striking – Mitchell’s group was very good, but Rivers’ trio was exceptional. Rivers, who played tenor, piano, flute, and soprano (and sang), is a strong player on all his instruments and much more than that on tenor. In Holland and Altschul he has the ideal accompaniment – players individually as strong and inventive as he is, with the quick reflexes and fertile imaginations to interact with him as equals in a freely and almost totally spontaneous improvised music.
Rivers opened on tenor. It’s impossible to chart the course the music took in a short review such as this, but it was a journey marked by incredible togetherness – Holland and Altschul were always there; a slight change of phrase, a different inflection from Rivers and the group would be off on a different tangent. The high point of the tenor section was for me about midway along when the trio fell into an easy four, much like the medium tempo excursions Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden used to take some fifteen years ago. Rivers was superb here; he worked with a little Parker-like phrase, using the full range of the tenor and all its varied tonal resources to develop an intricate but musical solo.
Rivers’ tenor eventually gave way to a marvelous Holland bass solo, full of fluid, virtuostic lines and double-stops. Rivers then returned on piano. I was impressed with his command of the instrument but disappointed that he only seemed interested in creating a vaguely classical, a-rhythmic texture of dissonant chords. Sam finally moved over to flute, scat-singing a duet with himself at one point. Altschul took over for a relatively brief musical solo that emphasized textures rather than the bombast drummers usually offer. Rivers came back with his hollow-toned soprano, and with some high energy, high speed playing the set was over. The three drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
I suppose Rivers’ trio should be heard in the context of the varied music presented at his Studio Rivbea in New York (by his big band) to be really appreciated. Standing alone, such totally improvised music can come dangerously close to monotony, even with gifted players such as these. Although Rivers’ performance was clearly superior to Mitchell’s, the more compositional approach displayed by Mitchell is, I think, ultimately more rewarding. But Rivers remains one of the best tenor players now working in the music.
David Wild, 1975
Sam Rivers biography:
Samuel Carthorne Rivers (born September 25, 1923, El Reno, Oklahoma) is a jazz musician and composer. He performs on soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, and piano. Rivers was previously thought to have been born in 1930.
Rivers’s father was a gospel musician who had sung with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Silverstone Quartet, exposing Rivers to music from an early age. Rivers moved to Boston, Massachusetts in 1947, where he studied at the Boston Conservatory with Alan Hovhaness. He performed with Quincy Jones, Herb Pomeroy, Tadd Dameron and others.
In 1959 Rivers began performing with 13-year-old drummer Tony Williams, who later went on to have an impressive career. Rivers did a brief stint with Miles Davis’s quintet in 1964, partly at Williams’s recommendation. This quintet was recorded on a single album, Miles in Tokyo. Unfortunately, Rivers’ playing style was too free to be compatible with Davis’s music at this point, and he was soon replaced by Wayne Shorter. Rivers was signed by Blue Note Records, for whom he recorded four albums as leader and made several sideman appearances. Among noted sidemen on his own Blue Note Records were Jaki Byard who appears on Fuschia Swing Song, Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. He appeared on Blue Note recordings of Tony Williams, Andrew Hill and Larry Young.
Rivers’s music is rooted in bebop, but he is an adventurous player, adept at free jazz. The first of his Blue Note albums, Fuchsia Swing Song, is widely regarded as a masterpiece of an approach sometimes called “inside-outside”. The performer frequently obliterates the explicit harmonic framework (“going outside”) but retains a hidden link so as to be able to return to it in a seamless fashion. Rivers brought the conceptual tools of bebop harmony to a new level in this process, united at all times with the ability to “tell a story” which Lester Young had laid down as a benchmark for the jazz improviser.
His powers as a composer were also in evidence in this period: the ballad “Beatrice” from Fuchsia Swing Song has become an important standard, particularly for tenor saxophonists. It is analysed in detail in The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine who notes how each of its four eight-bar elements has a distinct emotional identity.
During the 1970s, Rivers and his wife, Bea, ran a noted jazz performance loft called Studio Rivbea in New York City’s NoHo district. He continued to record for a variety of labels, including two albums for Impulse! (Trio Live and his first big-band disc, Crystals); perhaps his best-known work from this period, though, is his sideman appearance on Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds, in the company of Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul.
Rivers currently lives near Orlando, Florida. He performs regularly with his trio (with Anthony Cole and Doug Matthews). In 1998 he recorded two big-band albums for RCA Victor with the RivBea All-Star Orchestra, Culmination and Inspiration (the title-track is an elaborate reworking of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tanga”: Rivers was in Gillespie’s band near the end of the trumpeter’s life). Other recent albums of note include Portrait, a solo recording for FMP, and Vista, a trio with drummers Adam Rudolph and Harris Eisenstadt for Meta.
In 2006, he released Aurora, a third CD featuring compositions for his Rivbea Orchestra and the first CD featuring members of his working orchestra in Orlando.
more on Sam Rivers web page here…
Roscoe Mitchell biography:
Roscoe Mitchell (b. August 3, 1940 in Chicago, Illinois) is an African American composer and jazz instrumentalist, mostly known for being “a technically superb — if idiosyncratic — saxophonist.” He has been called “one of the key figures” in avant-garde jazz who has been “at the forefront of modern music” for the past thirty years. He continues “to be a major figure.” He has even been called a “super musician” and the New York Times has mentioned that he “qualifies as an iconoclast.”
Mitchell grew up in the Chicago, Illinois area where he played saxophone and clarinet at around age twelve. His family was always involved in music with many different styles playing in the house when he was a child as well as having a secular music background. His brother, Norman, in particular was the one who introduced Mitchell to jazz. While attending Inglewood High School in Chicago, he furthered his study of the clarinet. In the 1950s, he joined the United States Army, during which time he was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany and played in a band with fellow saxophonists Albert Ayler and Rubin Cooper, the later of which Mitchell commented “took me under his wing and taught me a lot of stuff.”
He also studied under the first clarinetist of the Heidelberg Symphony while in Germany. Mitchell returned to the United States in the early 1960s, relocated to the Chicago area, and performed in a band with Wilson Junior College undergraduates Malachi Favors (bass), Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Braxton (all saxophonists). Mitchell also studied with Muhal Richard Abrams and played in his band, the Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band, starting in 1961.
In 1965, Mitchell was one of the first members of the non-profit organization Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) along with Jodie Christian (piano), Steve McCall (drums), and Phil Cohran (composer). The following year, the augmented AACM of Mitchell, Lester Bowie (trumpet), Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre (tenor saxophone), Favors, Lester Lashley (trombone), and Alvin Fiedler (drums), recorded their first studio album, Sound. The album was “a departure from the more extroverted work of the New York-based free jazz players” due in part to the band recording with “unorthodox devices” such as toys and bicycle horns.
The group went through changes again in 1967 and 1969, both in name (changing first to the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, then the Art Ensemble, and finally the Art Ensemble of Chicago) and the players (inclusion of Phillip Wilson on drums for short span before he joined Paul Butterfield’s band). This group and its incarnations would be regarded as becoming “possibly the most highly acclaimed jazz band” in the 1970s and 1980s.The group lived and performed in Europe from 1969 to 1971, though they arrived without any percussionist after Wilson left. To fill the void, Mitchell commented that they “evolved into doing percussion ourselves.” The band did eventually get a percussionist, Don Moye, who Mitchell had played with before and was living in Europe at that time. For performances, the band often wore brilliant African costumes and painted their faces.
Mitchell and the others returned to the States in 1971. After having been back in Chicago for three years, Mitchell then established the Creative Arts Collective (CAC) in 1974 that had a similar musical aesthetic to the AACM. The group was based in East Lansing, Michigan and frequently used the facilities at the University of Michigan. Mitchell also formed the Sound Ensemble in the early 1970s, an “outgrowth of the CAC” in his words, that consisted mainly of Mitchell, Hugh Ragin, Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal, and Spencer Barefield.
In the 1990s, Mitchell started to experiment in classical music with such composers/artists such as Pauline Oliveros, Thomas Buckner, and Borah Bergman, the latter two of which formed a popular trio with Mitchell called Trio Space. Buckener also was part of another group with Mitchell and Gerald Oshita called Space in the late 1990s. He then conceived the Note Factory in 1992 with various old and new collaborators as another evolution of the Sound Ensemble. He currently lives in the area of Madison, Wisconsin and has been performing with a re-assembled Art Ensemble of Chicago. In 1999, the band was hit hard with the death of Bowie, but Mitchell fought off the urge to recast his position in the group, stating simply “You can’t do that” in an interview with Allaboutjazz.com editor-in-chief Fred Jung. The band continued on despite the loss.