Hearing Sam Rivers’ Rivbea Orchestra for the 1st time is an experience never forgotten: It is shocking, new and vital.
Sam Rivers’ invitation to join Miles Davis Quintet in 1964 made him an international figure. He was 41 years old, confident, seasoned and better educated than most of the jazz greats at the time. His debut LP, “Fuchsia Swing Song” proved that Sam Rivers was as bold a composer as he had already proved as a soloist. Four more Blue Note and four Impulse LP’s were released over the next decade. In them, Sam balanced austere textures and lines from serial techniques with blazing, virtuosic improvisation. While much of the critical world was wrestling with whether or not free jazz was really jazz, Sam Rivers raised the bar on both, by being both.
Sam Rivers’s jazz orchestra compositions are complex counterpoints that are constructed to provide a vehicle for improvisation; all planted to earth by a solid groove. The responsive rhythm and Sam’s forceful and atonal lines push these great Florida musicians out of the comfort zone and into ideas fresh and surprising. More than 80% was designed to springboard improvisation, and everyone in the band is heard in every piece. THAT’S JAZZ!
Sam employs ”Interludes” and/or “Orchestra” building blocks for these compositions interludes are tuttti sections of massive vertical clusters in the same rhythm. They are placed like bookends and midway milestones and serve as a relief to the strains of intense solos and counterpoint. Only Peaks, Beads and Colours do not employ interludes.
The “Orchestra” sections make up the majority of each composition and prove a platform for the copious amount of improvisation. A specific section introduces every 16 bars, a unique layer of melody. The layer is later combined and recombined with other layers. As s result, no two solos are supported by the same accompaniment, and, at the same time, the work develops. Towards the conclusion of each piece, multiple solos are set against an ever-growing number of layers and conclude with a final interlude.
“Every composition has its own form – ITS OWN LIFE.”
Not withstanding the overall form, melodic and harmonic content of each suite is unique.
“ Each time it’s gonna be different, I try to use something new on each piece I write.”
“I’m always thinking jazz. It’s the phrasing that makes it SWING JAZZ.”
Sam composes linearly, like he’s playing a solo over a chord – usually a single, dominant 13th chord for the entire piece. His melodies are methodically serial in content – many are complete 12 note rows – which sit upon a tonal, repeated bass line, All twelve notes of the chromatic scale have a unique functional melodic relationship to the chord but the resulting ensemble’s harmony does not. His craft in serial writing insures an ever-changing harmonic density, regardless of the number of layers heard. Sam seems to have arrived at his style via merging a mastery of bebop with classical technique, the discipline of which perfectly balances the exuberance and freedom of the avant.
“I work from spontaneous creativity. The only thing you can stretch with is your mind and go back and see what you did, that’s the opposite of a scientist”. He tries to figure it out first thing and then, tries it. “Sound is very limiting for me. There’s no need to try to figure out what it’s going to sound like. I never think that it’s gonna be dull or uninteresting because I can see that there’s a lot happening. When I hear these compositions for the first time, I mean, it’s gonna amaze me too!”
We are amazed. At 81, Sam Rivers still writes every day, he still plays with unmatched fluidity, still close to his family and still a regular feature at European festivals and on US tours. He represents jazz at its highest endeavor and deserves its highest honors.