Arkansas-raised tenor saxophonists Sam Rivers (1923), who had studied at a
conservatory of music, represented the highbrow alter-ego of Ornette Coleman's free jazz.
Relocating in 1964 to New York, Rivers debuted with Fuchsia Swing Song (december 1964), featuring a quartet with teenage drummer Tony Williams, pianist Jaki Byard and bassist Ron Carter, that was poised halfway between hard bop and free jazz.
Rivers struck an unlikely balance within each piece, particularly Luminous Monolith and Downstairs Blues Upstairs, that do not seem to belong any known genre except that they evoke everything from blues to swing to free.
Even in relatively straightforward tracks such as Ellipsis and Fuchsia Swing Song Rivers compensated for the simpler material with a style that
was an elegant (if somewhat stiff and highbrow) synthesis of styles.
The dynamic range was further broadened on Contours (may 1965), featuring a quintet with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Joe Chambers. The five players engaged in some of the most
cerebral counterpoint of the era in four lengthy tracks:
the nine-minute Point of Many Returns,
the ten-minute Dance of the Tripedal,
the twelve-minute Euterpe,
the nine-minute Mellifluous Cacophony.
The sophisticated, austere, atonal Rivers persona came out vividly on the six
compositions of Dimensions And Extensions (march 1967), for a sextet with Donald Byrd (trumpet), James Spaulding (alto saxophone, flute), Julian Priester (trombone), Cecil McBee (bass) and Steve Ellington (drums).
While a lot less "humane" than John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, Rivers was
no less bold and innovative. In fact, he added the sensibility of the European
avantgarde to the creative furor of free jazz.
His progression towards a more abstract sound culminated in the 48-minute
live improvisation of Streams (july 1973), that basically wed the painful
exuberance of free jazz with the surgical explorations of the classical avantgarde.
The posthumous Emanation (june 1971) delivered a 76-minute improvisation for tenor and soprano saxes, flute and piano, accompanied by Cecil McBee (bass) and Norman Connors (drums).
He employed a 64-piece orchestra for Crystals (march 1974), his most ambitious
and complex work, that at times
(Exultation, Tranquillity, Orb) achieved a degree of
intricacy unparalleled in any musical genre, each instrument delving into
labyrinthine patterns and asynchronous soliloquies.
Due to budget constraints, Rivers would not be able to continue the "orchestral"
experiment until Inspiration (september 1998) and Culmination (september 1998).
Don Pullen's Capricorn Rising (october 1975) was dominated by
Rivers' twelve-minute Break Out and 15-minute Fall Out.
Rivers (on tenor and soprano saxes, flute and piano)
recorded the 53-minute suite Universal Message
with Joe Daley (tuba, euphonium), Dave Holland (bass, cello), Barry Altschul (drums) and Charlie Persip (drums), finally released on Zenith (november 1977, released only in 2019).
Another facet of Rivers' art surfaced when he formed a trio with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul, documented on The Quest (march 1976) and Paragon (april 1977).
He also recorded Waves (august 1978) and Contrasts (december 1979) for quartet,
and at least the duets with Alexander von Schlippenbach on Tangens (november 1997)
are noteworthy, but Rivers' talent was fundamentally crippled by a record
industry that was not willing to invest in large-ensemble recordings.
Ricochet (january 1978) documents a 52-minute improvisation with Holland (bass and cello) and Barry Altschul (drums).
Braids (may 1979) contains the 57-minute piece An Evening In Hamburg Part One, performed by Joe Daley (tuba, euphonium), Dave Holland (bass and cello) and Thurman Barker (drums).
Fluid Motion (january 2002) was a quintet session with trumpeter Jonathan Powell, trombonist David Manson, bassist Doug Mathews, drummer Anthony Cole.
documents a trio with Doug Mathews (upright & electric bass, bass clarinet) and Anthony Cole (drums, tenor sax, piano).
Vista (september 2003) documents a session with percussionists Adam Rudolph and Harris Eisenstadt.
Aurora (september 2005) debuted the Sam Rivers & The RivBea Orchestra, that was extensively documents on
the triple-disc set
Trilogy: Studio & Live - 2008-2009:
a live recording of november 2008,
a studio recording of february 2008,
and a live recording of april 2009.
Undulation (may 1981) was recorded with
Jerry Byrd (guitar), Rael-Wesley Grant (electric bass) and Steve Ellington (drums).