Taylor Ho Bynum

*Photo by Peter Gannushkin

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RIP Sam Rivers

One of my first post-college gigs as a professional musician in Boston was opening for Sam Rivers, at the Middle East club in Central Square, maybe around 1998. The irrepressible concert promoter Billy Ruane (may he also rest in peace, though actually, he’d probably be happier spinning in his grave, he had a tendency to burst into circular flight when the music was really killing) hooked me up with the opportunity. I played a brass trio with trumpeter Stephen Haynes and bass trombonist/tubaist Bill Lowe. I thought we sounded pretty damn good. Then right after we finished, I heard caterwauling primal screams coming from the club’s dumpy back stage area. The screams got louder as Mr. Rivers got closer, seamlessly segueing from vocalisms to testifying tenor sax as he put the horn in his mouth and he stepped onto the stage. That kicked off an incredible hour-plus concert with his trio featuring multi-instrumentalists Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole, the music jumping from burning saxophone/bass/drums to lyrical woodwind trios at the drop of a hat. I remember marveling that a 75-year old man had blown me off the stage with the pure force of his energy in about 30 seconds, a musical moment I will never forget. (By funny coincidence, that brass trio grew into the collective ensemble Paradigm Shift, where Bill, Stephen, and I were joined by long-time Rivers alumni Joseph Daley, Sydney Smart, and Warren Smith. They all regularly regaled me with stories of Rivers’s classic ’70s tuba trio and the other working combos they participated in.)

I saw Sam Rivers several more times over the past 13 years, and his musical fire remained undiminished, even though he had to play sitting down the last time I heard him at the Vision Festival a few years back (with his incredible Orlando-based Rivbea Orchestra). The combination of his free-flowing small group improvisations (perhaps only matched by the Coltranes and Cecil Taylors of the world in inexhaustible power) and his knotty, thrilling orchestral compositional logics make one of the great yin yang musical consciousnesses of the twentieth century. The mainstream media obituaries will probably focus on his sideman experiences with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, but make no mistake, Sam Rivers’s own music is what made him one of the true masters. As a composer, conceptualist, improviser, bandleader, and organizer, he was one of the great forces of American music. May his spirit now enjoy some well-deserved rest alongside his wife Beatrice (and partner in life, music, and activism), who left the planet before him a few years ago.  Sam Rivers forever.

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