sam rivers | streams & the quest


STREAMS (Impulse AS-9251)

Sam Rivers / tenor and soprano saxophone, flute, piano, Cecil McBee / bass, Norman Connors / drums and gongs.

Recorded: July 6, 1973 at the Montreux Jazz Festival.


THE QUEST (Pausa PR-7015)

Sam Rivers / tenor and soprano saxophone, flute, piano, Dave Holland / bass, Barry Altschul / percussion.

Recorded: March 12, 13, 1976.

There was a point, immediately following the release of Streams, when it seemed like Sam Rivers might be the one to fill the musical gap left by John Coltrane. His robust, no-nonsense, gruff but lyrical tenor style was like a light shining in an old darkness, a light whose brilliance had dimmed since Trane’s premature passing. It was, admittedly, a lot to expect from anyone (to fill that gap), but I mention it because for me Rivers’ music was always so close to being just that force, and yet… and yet, something never quite jelled.


Barry Altschul and Dave Holland

I heard Rivers perform on several occasions at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner from the mid to late ’70s. I held off reviewing his performances because he was unable to bring his regular accompanists with him, and in music such as his – created entirely spontaneously – I felt that might have been a severe hindrance. But even later, when Altschul and Holland showed up to take part in Rivers’ musical rituals, something was lacking. It’s simply that the music was never concentrated enough to move into that realm where, like Coltrane’s music, it might truly have shaken heaven and earth.

davidholland.jpgThe format was always predictable for one thing: Rivers playing in turn each of his four instruments, interspersed with his own jazz vocalese. Yet that wouldn’t have been cause for complaint had the music been able to sustain for the hour-and-a-half length and longer of his sets. As it was, there were often brilliant statements. I remember one 35-minute soprano saxophone solo that alternately twisted, cried, shouted, and stopped, then slithered off like a snake through the surrounding rhythm. But there were equally intolerable moments: flute seeming to go nowhere forever, stuttered piano poundings and, above all, a rhythm team that all too often kept following in Rivers’ footsteps rather than creating their own music alongside his – which, to me, is the whole point of improvisation and particularly of the spontaneous, un-pre-structured variety that Rivers’ trios sought to enter into.


Norman Connors and Cecil McBee

These records, Streams and The Quest, are fully representative of this music, yet are slightly different documents. Certainly the form of the music is there, and the feeling. And I’m especially drawn to Rivers’ tenor playing, particularly on Streams. Also, all of his work (like the sound of his flute) is bright, in a dark sense, and absorbing. But the difference is that these are more completed statements overall, even in a textural sense, than any of Rivers’ music I heard performed live (even though Streams, of course, is a live recording).

connor_norm_danceofma_102b.jpgThe problem is that in hearing Rivers’ groups in person there was never the feeling for me that everything had worked or had had some necessity of relation; or never a full emotional satisfaction, to take it out of the area of technique, even though there were always memorable moments. And so the disappointment is that with all of the potential of Rivers’ music and all of the musical implications of where it might have gone (or could still go), so far the promise remains in part unfulfilled.

Henry Kuntz, 1982 (previously unpublished)


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…

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