RIP Free-Jazz Legend Sam Rivers at 88

Today we learned of another sad passing in the music world, of a musician and bandleader who was one of the most reknowned free jazz artists, Sam Rivers. Though he is not known outside of the relatively small creative jazz community, he made a large impact on the music of the last half-century.

He is best known for a brief stint with the Miles Davis quintet after George Coleman left but before the ‘great second quintet’ was completed by the addition of Wayne Shorter in 1964. That produced the excellent live recording ‘Miles in Tokyo’ recording which was excellently remastered in 2005.

But if you listen to the harmonic statements by Sam Rivers on If I Were a Bell in the YouTube clip below, you will hear that he is working outside of the harmonic and rhythmic confines of the classic tune from ‘Guys & Dolls’ that Miles had made a jazz standard.

After leaving Davis a few months later, Rivers continued to push the boundaries of the music in ways that were respectful, intellectually based … but NEVER boring. In my iTunes library I have some great recordings by Rivers – 1967’s A New Conception challenges the ‘standards’ in all new ways, whereas 1975’s Crystals takes a 64-piece avant-garde group to new heights!

After a long absence from studio recording, his 1999 effort Inspiration was … well, inspirational, including his best known song ‘Beatrice’ (named for his wife), and some newer material. He continued making new records through at least 2007, including the excellent Violet Violets in 2005. But he had long since moved permanently to Orlando where he carved out a great jazz scene with his Rivbea Orchestra (Riv for Rivers, and Bea for Beatrice). He and Beatrice were married for 56 years when she passes away in 2005.

Clip from Miles in Tokyo

Here is a great clip from 1979:

And finally, here is his classic Beatrice from a 1989 recording:

This year has seen the departure of many greats in a variety of fields in 2011. Some were celebrated so publicly there is no chance of us missing their passing; others will appear on lists and we will say ‘oh, I didn’t realize they died’; still others never gained enough reknown to even register on those lists.

For someone like Sam Rivers, who chose a different path and simultaneously challenged and gained fame from a brief stint with Miles Davis, and was subsequently able to continue pursuing life as he chose because of that solid reputation … he was able in later years to know that he had managed to bring joy to some, make others uncomfortable with the status quo, force some to question truths held so dear, and left an enduring legacy of great music. And after all, what more can a great artist like Sam Rivers hope to do?

Categories: Music Diary, News