It's instinctive to begin at the beginning when telling the story of Sam Rivers. It's a thrilling tale of more than seven decades spanning every twist and innovation that defines the evolution of jazz. But on this late-November night, Sam Rivers' 16- and 30-piece RivBea Orchestra is occupying Keene Hall on Rollins College's campus as part of a New Works Series sponsored by WPRK-FM (91.5) and The Civic Minded Five. History is irrelevant when the lanky man with wild hair is in the flesh, hot-wired to the stage.
"It's a density of colors, shapes, textures," he smiles to the audience when introducing one composition. It's music for the moment. He counts off in some obscure rant to the 30-piece orchestra, which lunges in. Rivers becomes a lightning rod, conducting the electricity of sound, harmony, anti-harmony, dissonance and consonance. He marks the changes with a hand or a nod, stacking duets, trios and counterpoints, building the thematic edifice.
The sound arcs through the room like the rebound of fluorescent lights from the surface of the polished ensemble of tubas, trumpets, granddaddy saxes and trombones. Then ... a space ... a solo ... a challenge. Each red-faced soloist pits himself against orchestral roar and the counterpoint melodies with something new, never heard, never done, thrashing through the discord. Rivers approves.
Underneath it all, squeezed between the brass muscle, an electric bass and a high hat and snare skip along the bottom, drummer Anthony Cole's cheeks sucked in, lips pressed hard, bassist Doug Mathews' fingers dancing over the strings. Then up, over the top, Cole breaks into big grin. Rivers grins back.
The music speaks, crosses the stage, taunts the audience -- people of all cultures, all walks of life, all ages. They answer, heads pitching, toes rapping, knees out of control, delighted and disturbed by the complexities of sound.
Other compositions are similarly met, with Rivers interjecting his sometimes furtive, sometimes honeyed saxophone and clarinet solos. But it's obvious he's not there to outshine his compatriots. Between the performances of the 16- and then 30-piece orchestras, as each instrument works through its solo, it's apparent this night isn't about Rivers. It's about jazz.
That's probably the most compelling aspect of Rivers. He's a humble, easy-going man, despite damn near inventing free-form jazz and being one of the most driving innovators and improvisers of the style. Not to mention the names such as Gigi Gryce, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who are unalterably woven into the landscape of his prolific career. Or that, despite hundreds of recordings and world tours, and thousands of performances, there is no ego apparent in the man. The 76-year-old is not about fame and fortune; he's just about the music.
Rivers settled in Orlando in 1991 after spending most of his career on the East Coast. His desire was to expand his ideas, some dating to 1958, to the performance level for various configurations of the Rivbea Orchestra. From his Maitland condo, which he shares with his wife of 52 years, Bea, Rivers continues to churn out new work, as evidenced by the several unrecorded compositions he played at Rollins.
His unassuming home is serene, ordered and minimalist. It's hardly any comparison to his childhood hearth that housed two pianos, a host of musical relatives and sounds from gospel to Beethoven; or the college pad he shared with 10 music students, including Gryce, while he attended the Boston Conservatory of Music; or his legendary '70s Manhattan loft, which hosted avant-garde music, theater, dance and art.
His dining room is dominated by a large desk fixture, complete with computer. In the corner sit his saxophone and clarinet. On a wall hangs a black-and-white photograph of Rivers and Gillespie, another of a long-ago performance in Paris and some awards; in another corner, a rack of all his CD releases. On the desk lies a chart of a new composition he's working on. He writes every day, with the intention of creating a library of untraditional music written in traditional form.
"The one that sounded like it didn't resolve `at the Rollins concert`, that was 'Watercolors,'" explains Rivers, smiling from behind his L-shaped desk. Even though he's not onstage, his subdued enthusiasm manages to ripple from the edges of his grin to the corners of his eyes. He says his pieces are designed to create so much tension between the elements of the composition that the audience rejoices in the resolution. "Watercolors" is one, however, that deliberately pushes the elements so far that the audience often feels unsettled.
Other compositions like "Panorama," which was written for his 30-piece orchestra and features solos for almost every instrument, offers a distinguishable movement between dissonance and consonance. "Impulse," on the other hand, has more traditional, recognizable jazz elements. "The idea of staying dissonant is tiring," says Rivers. "Between the two -- it's a rise-and-fall kind of thing, tension to release, tension to release. That's music."
His original composing style pays particular attention to the solos, not for the individual musician but for what the instrument can accomplish. That was the idea behind using an orchestra. With more instruments come more problems that are a challenge to solve -- such as pushing each soloist to provide something fresh each time. Five trumpets must produce five different solos. And the process is further complicated by the sheer intensity of 29 other instruments playing counterpoint melodies. "`But that` makes the music interesting enough for the musician to enjoy it, too," explains Rivers.
He constantly pushes the envelope of his creativity to keep it fresh -- for the musicians, for himself and for the audience. That's a pretty big challenge when he adds up all the music he's played in his lifetime. But that's the beauty of jazz: "It stays creative," notes Rivers. "You go out specifically to not repeat what you did before. To do that is like a defeat. That's how it stays interesting."
"Interesting" is the story of Rivers' life, which started on the road with his musical family. Performing from the age of 4, he eventually mastered violin, piano, trombone and saxophone, due largely to his mother's influence. "She was a puritan in everything, a strict disciplinarian." Rivers recalls boys coming by to ask him to play, and his mother insisting that he had to practice. After a year or so of that, kids would ask him to play, but he preferred Bach to baseball.
That infusion of discipline helped him meet the demands of composition and performance. The discipline that drives him to write down all his ideas, however, hasn't detracted from what he considers his biggest contribution to jazz. Where free-form jazzers in the '70s were improvising over established themes, he began improvising on the spot. "For eight to 10 years, I'd go out with my trio, Dave Holland and Barry Altshultz. Total and complete improvisation, theme and everything, spontaneous creativity. Stream of consciousness."
In addition to an upcoming European tour, a performance at Lincoln Center with the All Star Orchestra, and several releases in the mix, Rivers lately has enjoyed turning his composing efforts to a more sentimental note. He's writing 10 compositions, one for each daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter, which he will record for a CD. What's the name of his project? Progeny, he smiles.