Learning to Live: For Sam Rivers

4 Nov

One of the most important albums to me, for a number of reasons, has been Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds, featuring Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers and Barry Altschul on a date of six originals. The tunes are great, the improvisations are stunning.

Focusing on their break with the harmonic norms of functional music, focusing on the abstraction of “outness” and grafting metaphors of militancy onto the music neglects the degree to which many so-called “free jazz” saxophone players, in particular, draw their conceptions of timbre–and, to some degree, timing–from great pre-bebop sax players like Chu Berry or Ben Webster. Listening to the full, burly sounds of players like Albert Ayler, Frank Wright, Archie Shepp, Joe McPhee, Fred Anderson or Rivers you can really hear that. This is not to deny the innovations of or differences between those players (who represent only a small sampling of players and approaches), just to offer one way I’ve heard their sound.

The sounds of the players on Conference of the Birds, especially Rivers and Braxton, entranced me. They could sound different from moment to moment, but also sound uniquely themselves, and timbre was obviously a key component of their conception. I listen to and dig a lot of contemporary players, but because it seems like everyone has so much technical facility I get most excited by those who have unique, flexible sounds–timbres, textures, dynamic range. With these players, you hear not just frightening chops, but something still more frightening: a will to be free on your own terms. To be free, borrowing language associated with “free jazz” playing, to explore other areas of the tradition, and of the imagination. Technique is a vehicle to that freer thing, not an aesthetic end.

Rivers always sounds like he’s playing a woodwind instrument. There’s something very pliable, almost organic about his sound. He has a slippery sense of time, and you hear the materiality of his horn, even in ensemble playing. Dig the opening song, “Four Winds,” where you can very distinctly tell Rivers is on the lower horn (and hear Braxton’s insistent, open sound on soprano – it’s plangent, almost melancholy, very controlled. It’s a perfect foil to Rivers’ urgent, forceful-but-plaintive woodwind sound. Both players push the woodwind to an almost vocal quality, but even as the playing gets more intense they always sound in control. Holland is the clear master of ceremonies here, heating up and cooling down the tunes as needed. For whatever reason, Barry Altschul has never been my favorite, but he adds something essential here, especially his marimba playing on the title cut.

I discovered this album, and through it the work of Rivers and Braxton (I knew Holland from his early-2000s quintet) at a point when I was casting about for models of black experimentation, for alternative approaches to black art. I was in a writing program, where instructors and colleagues alike thought the acme of black art was “the search for identity” and who complained that my (unsuccessful) experiments seemed to be getting in the way of me “telling my own story.” As if I had simply neglected to tell it. In Rivers, here was an uncompromising genius, unhurried, unfussy, and brilliant in small ensembles or larger groups such as those on Crystals or Winds of Manhattan to name two. As much as I loved the music (still do), I needed the model of black excellence. And here it’s important to recall that part of what the New Thing was about was developing aesthetic standards that did not situate European art music as the acme of music, and thus to understand excellence without reference to something else.

I got to meet the man himself once, and shake his hand. It was nice to be able to look him in the eyes and tell him how much I loved his music, and how important it had been to me. It would have been too much to say “your music kept me alive,” but I think he would have gotten it: it helped me to retain something I feared I might have lost. In a real way, it did keep me alive. As Shana Redmond reminded me today, freedom is not the absence of slavery, and living is not simply performing the functions necessary for survival. In Rivers’ music, there is something of that search for freedom. the freedom to be black and complex, to be black and abstract, to set your own terms, to allow yourself to live. I’m still learning that lesson.

You can find bootlegs of a concert with the same personnel, adding Joe Daley on tuba, and substituting the great Thurman Barker on drums – worth your time if you’re looking to listen to more of the same group. Holland and Rivers recorded a lot, often in a trio that included Barry Altschul – also great.

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