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Improvise or Shut Up

Jazz titan Sam Rivers keeps on blowing

Undeterred by negative pressure from the music industry, Rivers went on to almost single-handedly found the downtown free-jazz loft scene with the opening of his performance space, Studio Rivbea. Although Studio Rivbea was to close by the end of the Seventies, Rivers asserts it was harsh weather, and not the equally brutal music industry, which prompted him to return to Florida.

"I was traveling with Dizzy Gillespie in the late Eighties; we traveled all over the world for four years," he says. "And I was looking for a place to get out of New York because I was tired of fighting New York winters. I had choices. I could have moved to Arizona, New Mexico, California, anyplace. I just chose Florida because of the weather. I was down here and I was talking to some of the guys; I was telling them I how was wanting to get out of New York, and they said, 'We have a lot of musicians down here. You could come down, and it would be very easy for you to put a group together.'"

Rivers's current residence in Maitland, just outside of Orlando, is in no way a retirement. He has since organized one of the few steady creative jazz orchestras in the nation using his trio with Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole as the nucleus. His huge backlog of compositions and unique orchestration technique keeps the orchestra on its toes at weekly rehearsals. "In my music the orchestra accompanies itself," he says firmly. "In most jazz orchestras that you see, the band is just sitting there most of the time with one guy standing up soloing and everybody else is twiddling their thumbs or reading a newspaper. Mine isn't like that. The musicians are playing pretty much all the way, all the time, like they do in the symphony. It's a real orchestra. It might be overdone, if anything, but none of the musicians are falling asleep up there."

South Florida may ignore him, but jazz titan Sam Rivers keeps on blowing
Jim Seatherman
South Florida may ignore him, but jazz titan Sam Rivers keeps on blowing

Rivers also emphasizes creativity and the honing of a personal voice. He declares emphatically: "Sam Rivers wants young musicians to know that jazz is about improvising. A jazz musician is an improviser. I mean, that is 100 percent. You are a jazz musician because you have a particular individual statement to make; you don't imitate. That's the traditional stance of all jazz musicians. The musicians that I hire are all making a personal statement. It wasn't whether I thought that it was that technically flawless or something. No, it wasn't, but they were making a statement. I'd rather hear someone making a raggedy statement that's theirs, than to make a perfect statement that's copying someone else."

This dedication to inventiveness is in full view on Rivers's latest project, the Rivbea All-Star Orchestra's recent recording, Inspiration, and the soon-to-be-released companion disc, Culmination. This version of his orchestra consists of the cream of the crop of New York's open-minded jazz musicians, including Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Hamiet Bluiett, Ray Anderson, and Baikida Carroll. While fans of the ecstatic school of free jazz may at first be put off by the deep funk groove that underlies several of the tunes on Inspiration, the inspired solos and colorful orchestrations inevitably will draw them in. Ultimately these recordings bridge the gap between the seemingly mutually exclusive realms of free and soul jazz. In the words of free-jazz percussionist Charles Moffett, "Avant-garde got soul, too!"

Case in point: The butt-shaking opening groove of the tune "Nebula" unfolds a solid platform from which the soloists erect an undulating wave of sound. The arrangement telescopes from brief, subdued interludes in which only a single soloist is out front, to a full-out heady blast of collective improvisation by the entire orchestra.

Although Rivers welcomes the major-label marketing of Inspiration via BMG, he already is anxious to move on and introduce his several hundred unrecorded compositions to the listening public. "The next album, Culmination, is also being released by BMG," he says. "I signed for two and they're putting them out six months apart." Still, even a six-month gap (an exceptionally brief period given the glacial pace of major label scheduling) isn't enough to suit him. "I have plans to do many more albums as soon as I can. In fact I have new masters already done with the orchestra down here in Florida. For a while back in my career, I used to be very depressed about why I wasn't getting consideration, and then I grew out of that, and said, 'Well, I'm not going to get any consideration, but there's no need to stop. I'll just go ahead and write this music and have it ready.' Because I know that I have some of the most unique music of the time. The critics would rather ignore me, but it doesn't matter any more. I have no bitterness. There's no bitterness in me."

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