Essay from Peter Cherches

Remembering Sam Rivers at 100

	For a group that worked together so long and so intensely, recordings by the trio of Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul are surprisingly few and generally obscure. The only albums I’m familiar with by this lineup in its original incarnation (outside of the three musicians appearing together in other groups) are The Quest and Paragon, both on small indie labels. I think the three of them first appeared together on Dave Holland’s landmark ECM album Conference of the Birds, from 1973, which also featured saxophonist Anthony Braxton.

	From 1974−76, this trio was more than a group I saw many times, they were part of a coming of age for me. The setting for most of those encounters was Sam Rivers’ own loft, Studio Rivbea, on Bond Street in lower Manhattan. Rivbea, named for its patron saints Sam and his wife Bea, was the epicenter of the loft jazz movement, in which a number of free-jazz-oriented players like Rivers, percussionist Warren Smith, drummer Rashied Ali, singer Joe Lee Wilson, and saxophonist Charles Tyler, among others, took a DIY approach to presenting their own music and that of kindred spirits when jazz itself had lost much of its commercial viability and there was little room in the established clubs for the more “outside” players.
On a typical Friday or Saturday night, when I normally went to Rivbea, Sam’s trio (or another one of his groups like Winds of Manhattan) would split a bill with a guest artist’s group. For most of the time I attended, the shows were held in the basement space, which was not air-conditioned. We sat on cushions on the floor. The only time I remember it being oppressively hot and crowded was when Sam’s trio split the bill with Anthony Braxton’s quartet. Both groups shared the rhythm section of Dave Holland on bass and Barry Altschul on an expanded drum kit, including cowbells, temple blocks, and sirens.

	Upstairs one could take a break and buy refreshments or Bea’s homemade fish sandwiches, though toward the end the stage had moved upstairs. Bond Street, which is home to hip restaurants these days, was pretty industrial and quiet after dark back then. It would be some years before the neighborhood was dubbed Noho. The Rivers’ landlord was Robert De Niro’s mother.

	A performance by Rivers’ trio was more a flow than a set, usually an improvised suite without any break between sections. Though Sam was primarily a wind player (tenor and soprano saxes and flute), he also played piano and would move among his instruments. The deep listening and interplay of the three musicians kept me riveted. With jazz at its best, the group itself is an organism, and this trio was a prime example of that.

	Sam and Bea were the most gracious of hosts to the musicians and the listeners. Sometimes I went with friends and sometimes I went alone, but one was never alone in that audience of mostly hardcore devotees of some of the most vibrant music of the time. Conversations would spontaneously erupt. For me, at 18−20 years old, this world of mostly African-American musicians taking charge of the presentation of their music without compromise was an education in artistic integrity that has stayed with me all my life.

	Sam Rivers died in 2011 at age 88. Happily, I got to see a reunion of his great ’70s trio at Columbia University just four years earlier. 

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