Sunday, November 11, 2007

Harlem Rivers

Note to my publishing colleagues: someone needs to sign Sam Rivers to write his memoirs. He has the distinction of having played with Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, and Dizzy Gillespie. As one would expect, he has a lot of stories, which as evidenced last night, he is eager to tell.

Rivers was the focus of a three part Columbia/Harlem Jazz Project concert at Aaron Davis Hall Saturday. The first part was an interview conducted by Brent Hayes Edwards, in which Rivers proved a cooperative subject—no Stephen Wright monosyllabic responses for him—followed by various small groups drawn from the Rivbea Orchestra, concluding with the full Rivbea.

While Rivers’ claimed his facility on reeds has slowed due to age, it was not apparent during his sets, especially when spontaneously improvising as part of his trio, with Doug Matthews on bass and Rion Smith on drums. Equally impressive was their rendition of his ballad “Nightfall.” Although enjoyable, his horn ensembles were not up to the same level of emotional heft. The concluding performances by the full orchestra had great energy, but are striking in their difference from his spontaneous compositions.

While Rivers is revered for his early avant-garde work in the 1960’s and 1970’s and his contemporary free improvisations, the big band charts Rivbea played last night brought to mind some of the funky late 1960’s big band work of Gerald Wilson and (no kidding) even Buddy Rich. With funky electric bass lines and short but swinging solos, tunes like “Quagmire” sounded a world away from the small group. That is not a bad thing though. In fact, it makes for a fascinating evening of music.

Watching Rivers is a show unto itself. Again, his playing is still remarkably strong (his protests notwithstanding). His communication as a leader can be a bit chaotic, but one can definitely see how the Rivers was a natural in the 1970’s loft scene. Saturday he was not afraid to call musicians back and start over, but not in a confrontational way a la Mingus. He was just uninhibited by the concert stage in any manner. He is a trip to listen to, but unfortunately some of the stories cut into the time for the music. That is why he needs a publisher. There must be a house out there for him.

Rivers now lives in Florida, where the Rivbea Orchestra has a regular gig in Orlando at the Palace Theatre every second Wednesday. Since he does not play New York as often now, last night’s concert was an event, which should have been better publicized by Columbia. Believe me, I get a lot of press releases, but I only heard about it on myspace. This is why you should make “friends” with all the musicians you enjoy—you might otherwise miss a great show.