Sam Rivers: Free Jazz Trailblazer

Sam Rivers: Free Jazz Trailblazer

Written by Anne E. Johnson

When Sam Rivers (1923 – 2011) was growing up in Oklahoma, he often heard his father singing gospel music. The elder Rivers had been a member of the celebrated Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured the world representing African American music before many people understood what that meant. Young Sam decided to do his singing through wind instruments instead. He became an inventive master of the saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet.

When the Navy stationed him in California in the 1940s, he started performing with the blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon. As soon as he was able, he made the trip to New England, where he enrolled in the Boston Conservatory in 1947. He transferred briefly to Boston University to study composition, but the call of live gigging was louder than anything academia had to offer.

His big break came after he befriended teenaged jazz drumming prodigy Tony Williams. Not only did Williams encourage Rivers to experiment in free jazz, which would become his signature style, but he also introduced Rivers to Miles Davis. Rivers toured with the great trumpeter in 1964, and although the professional relationship was short-lived (they made one album together, Miles in Tokyo), it put Rivers on the map and helped him land a contract with Blue Note Records.

For Rivers, bebop was merely a starting point. He excelled at the practice of “going outside,” or experimenting with harmonic language beyond standard charts. In their obituary for Rivers in 2011, the New York Times called him “inexhaustibly creative,” and his improvisations “garrulous and uninhibited.”

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Sam Rivers.

  1. Track: “Euterpe”
    Album: Contours
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1965

Euterpe is one of the Muses, the ancient Greek goddesses focused on the arts – in this case, music. Those who weren’t prepared for post-bop harmony might have doubted that she approved of this sound, but Rivers found plenty of top-notch players interested in testing out new sonic waters. Besides Rivers on soprano and tenor sax and flute, there’s Ron Carter on bass, Joe Chambers on drums, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Herbie Hancock on piano.

Contours, which was recorded in 1965 but not released until over a year later because of Blue Note changing hands, contains only four tracks, two per side. “Euterpe” opens side B. After a sultry bass solo by Carter, Rivers comes in on flute at 6:16. It’s worth noting that this album is known for the exceptional quality of its sound, which was produced by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder.


  1. Track: “Effusive Melange”
    Album: Dimensions & Extensions
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 1967

Another Van Gelder production, Dimensions & Extensions has a larger personnel list and a timbral change: no piano. Instead, there’s trombone added to the mix, and Rivers shares the sax and flute duties with James Spaulding, who covers alto.

But the bigger difference between this and the previous track is the level of commitment to free jazz. Gone is the mellow safety, the cushioned sonic room. This is the Beat poetry of music: non-grammatical, uninterested in protecting its audience, visceral. It opens with Rivers running frantic on tenor sax.


  1. Track: “Exultation”
    Album: Crystals
    Label: Impulse!
    Year: 1974

While Rivers plays only tenor sax and flute on the Crystals album, he surrounded himself with multi-instrumentalists such as Fred Kelly (soprano, baritone, piccolo), Joe Ferguson (tenor, alto, soprano, flute), and Paul Jeffrey (tenor, flute, clarinet, oboe, basset horn, and bassoon), plus he bolstered the sound with three trombonists and three trumpeters.

As with his previous albums, Rivers wrote all the tracks, although the intensively improvisational quality of free jazz means that the tunes are collaborative works that exist only in their moment. “Exultation” opens with a mass of individual sounds crammed together like a downtown corner on a hot afternoon. What’s being exalted is the supremacy of dissonance. Once the tune relaxes into a melody of sorts, you’ll notice the inspiring “feathered” basslines (plucked with the right forefinger flattened to diffuse the pitch slightly) by Gregory Maker.


  1. Track: “Intro and Soprano Section”
    Album: Black Africa! Villalago
    Label: Horo
    Year: 1976

In the mid 1970s, an Italian jazz label called Horo was founded, and Rivers was among the first artists signed to it. He made two albums in a series he called Black Africa!, capturing performances from two different festivals. The Black Africa! Villalago album, a two-LP set, was recorded live at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy.

Black Africa! was itself a large-scale composition, and the tracks are simply movements named after the instrument featured in each lengthy section. The best way to describe the experience is as a free-jazz jam. Rivers is always the main player, on not only his usual saxes and flute, but also piano. He’s joined by Sidney Smart on drums and percussion and Joe Daley on tuba and euphonium, an instrument that goes a long way toward counterbalancing Rivers’ solo wandering in this opening “Soprano Section.” Smart’s snare technique is breathtaking.


  1. Track: “Torch”
    Album: Waves
    Label: Tomato
    Year: 1978

Rivers’ flute is the fire on this “Torch,” met with the high-energy work of Dave Holland’s bass pizzicato and Thurman Baker’s percussion. Daley is once again holding down the low end on tuba. It’s a strikingly different sonic landscape to have flute as the only melodic instrument, not mired down by a dissonant brass chorus. There’s a transparency and buoyancy that makes listening a significantly less intense experience. It also gives one a greater appreciation of Rivers’ mastery of the flute.


  1. Track: “Sprung”
    Album: Lazuli
    Label: Timeless
    Year: 1989

As is common in the jazz world, the Sam Rivers quartet was not a set group of musicians, but whoever he could get for particular gigs and sessions. On Lazuli, the only studio album by this foursome, Rivers had Steve McCraven on drums, Rael Wesley Grant on electric bass, and Darryl Thompson on electric guitar. This is an unusual instrumental grouping, compared to Rivers’ earlier works. Rivers co-produced the album with Wim Wigt, founder of the Dutch label Timeless.

“Sprung” is the album’s final track, a piece that could be described as retro, looking back to more of a classic bebop sound. You can imagine Charlie Parker playing on this track, which has a clearer structure and chordal motion that Rivers’ usual free jazz output.


  1. Track: “Bubbles”
    Album: Culmination
    Label: RCA Victor/BMG France
    Year: 1998

In the late 1990s, Rivers assembled a big band called Sam Rivers’ Rivbea Allstar Orchestra. Culmination was one of their albums. It’s an interesting stylistic blend, combining the tight orchestration required for such a large group with Rivers’ devotion to dissonance.

“Bubbles” adds in elements of funk (Doug Mathews tugs the group along with his mighty bass groove). With each successive chorus, the ensemble gives a greater and greater illusion of musical freedom, although they’re obviously working from a fairly detailed score all the way through.


  1. Track: “Nightfall”
    Album: Firestorm
    Label: Rivbea Sound
    Year: 2007

Firestorm was Rivers’ penultimate record, made on his own label with a group billed as the Sam Rivers Trio. Recorded at various live venues in New York City around the year 2000, the sonics are so vibrant that you can hear the musicians’ chairs squeaking.

“Nightfall” lets Rivers demonstrate his significant piano skills. The bowed double bass is played by Doug Mathews. It’s a very French-sounding composition, with sweeping lines leading to dramatic extremes requiring great physical power. Eventually Anthony Cole takes over the keyboard and Rivers comes back in on flute and vocals that are shouted, even screamed.


Header image courtesy of Wikipedia/Tom Marcello, cropped to fit format.

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