Sam Rivers: Sax symbol blows on

Sam Rivers played with Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. Keith Shadwick meets the energetic octogenarian

Name a musician who has played in the bands of Miles Davis, T-Bone Walker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Holland, BB King, Jimmy Witherspoon and Charles Mingus, hung out and jammed with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Anthony Braxton and appeared as a soloist in concert with a symphony orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Oh, and by the way, he has written 30 symphonies of his own, as well as made a number of classic jazz albums in the past four decades. Today, he's something of a father figure to jazz radicals. It's 81-year-old Sam Rivers.

Name a musician who has played in the bands of Miles Davis, T-Bone Walker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Holland, BB King, Jimmy Witherspoon and Charles Mingus, hung out and jammed with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Anthony Braxton and appeared as a soloist in concert with a symphony orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Oh, and by the way, he has written 30 symphonies of his own, as well as made a number of classic jazz albums in the past four decades. Today, he's something of a father figure to jazz radicals. It's 81-year-old Sam Rivers.

Being in the presence of a man with the energy of someone 30 years his junior, such diverse and impressive achievements quickly make sense. The veteran saxophonist had been in London a couple of days and was spending much of his free time in between rehearsals, soundchecks and just getting around town developing compositional ideas. He has, he says, "too much music for me ever to record in my lifetime". I had to concur: I remember reading a liner note he wrote to one of his early large-ensemble 1970s albums where he identified some pieces as having been written back in the 1950s. He was already playing catch-up 30 years ago.

I asked if he considered himself a prolific composer. He stopped for a moment, obviously having never really thought about it, then gave a broad smile. "Prolific? Yes, that's it! I'm composing pretty much every day. I'm trying to finish a composition right now in my room. I don't need an instrument to compose. I can just work it all out in my head."

This, I recalled, was what people such as Benjamin Britten did. Britten used to write chamber works in his head for his own amusement during car journeys. "Yeah, that's right," said Rivers. "It's a thought process. It's the way you think. For me the piano limits that. I can't imagine writing some of my things by just working out at a piano. It's intellectual, a science." As opposed to Stravinsky, I suggested, who wrote everything on piano. He'd have been a bit stuck on tour. "Yes! And he wasn't much of a pianist either! But boy could he develop those ideas. Whoo!"

Given Rivers's extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge in so many areas of music, I wondered what the background for it was. "Mine was the third generation of musicians in the Rivers family. I got my original musical education from my father, who was a violinist. My mother and father were both college graduates. So was my grandfather. I learned the viola. We were based in Chicago. Then I went to Boston to study theory and get my degree."

There he fell in with a large 1950s community of like-minded, ambitious musicians including Jaki Byard, Quincy Jones and Charlie Mariano. "The level of musicianship was very high, man," Rivers emphasised. "By day I was studying at the conservatory, playing viola, and at night I was playing saxophone in this club. Seven nights a week! People lived and breathed music."

One of the Boston people Rivers hit it off with in particular was teenage drum prodigy Tony Williams. Williams was knocking spots off the locals at the age of 13. At 17, in 1963, he was the rush of adrenalin behind Miles Davis. In 1964 Miles needed a saxophonist to work some international tour dates for him. Williams played Miles a tape of himself with Sam Rivers. "I was on the road with T-Bone Walker's band. Tony rang and said, 'Miles wants you to come and join the band, come right away.' So one week I was with T-Bone, the next with Miles."

I wondered if that felt weird. "No. I can play anybody's music. I enjoyed being with Miles. Most of the stuff we played was on the records, like Seven Steps to Heaven. Most jazz musicians like to play chord changes that are very simple so that they can improvise and every night's different. If the changes are hard, then you spend all your time trying to play the changes instead of trying to create! If the changes are simple and you can float, that's when you can express yourself."

Rivers remained on good terms with Miles after his stint came to an end in rather odd circumstances. "What nobody told me was that he and Art Blakey had already done a deal to have Wayne Shorter join Miles late in 1964, and I would go the other way. Swap over. Man! Why didn't they say? Anyway, I went with Andrew Hill's band instead."

Rivers went with the pianist/composer Andrew Hill because, along with lining Rivers up for the Davis band, Tony Williams had introduced the saxophonist to Blue Note's Alfred Lion by asking him to play on his first two albums for the label. By 1964 the man who'd made a star of Jimmy Smith was recording cutting-edge players such as Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock. He liked Rivers's highly individual approach and signed him. In the next three years Rivers would appear as a leader and sideman on a number of classic Blue Note recordings, not least a series with Andrew Hill.

Sam Rivers's gregariousness and industry led him to set up a loft space in New York in the late 1960s where he and other musicians could rehearse andexplore the outer limits of music. This would be a key development in creating the busy "loft jazz scene" that produced so many strong improvisers in the 1970s. It also spread Rivers's circle of musical acquaintance. Through percussionist Juma Sultan, who had jammed with John Coltrane and was by 1969 a close musical associate of Jimi Hendrix, the saxophonist got to jam with the guitar god many times.

Rivers derived great pleasure from playing with so many front-line stars, but it got to the stage that he wanted his own music to be out there in front of an audience. "I've got 30 symphonies of my own ready to go. I know the form and its disciplines, and I feel I've a little something to contribute."

I asked Sam if any of them had been performed yet. "No. I'm looking for an orchestra." BBC Proms programmers take note: there's a modern American master out there who'd love to have one of his 30 symphonies premiered at the next season. He's 81 and boy, is he ready.

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