Perfect Sound Forever

SAM RIVERS


Thanks to Darcy James Argue for use of the photo above

Sessionography- book excerpt by Rick Lopez, Part 2
(April 2022)


ED NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the upcoming extensive book on the work of jazz legend Sam Rivers. More information about Sam Rivers Sessionography can be found at Rick Lopez's website This article was continued from the first part here.




New York! New York ! ! !

It's 4:00 in the afternoon and we're On Broadway. We've found Brent Hayes Edwards and the building where he and his Nora live, parked the car, and returned to the entrance of this place where we'll be staying. Something is waiting there that was not there four minutes before. Warm and flush on the hot pavement, in front of the step up to the door, lies a small buff warbler, still and gone from the infinite inflexibility of the windows above. Bird Sighting #4.

The building is set in the hollow of a small concrete valley that has the subway trains coming out of the underground tunnel about four blocks to the north, running for a while on an increasingly and then decreasingly elevated rail line that slices like an iron and concrete boulevard down Broadway's middle, and then slipping underground again two blocks south; a fine gesture for two fellows as enamored of trains and their music as my son and I. Brent is a brilliant, gently reserved, quietly soulful gentleman whose apartment is filled with books and art and music and cats. Just the way we likes it! I complain about the only drawback of our arrangement: Nora and her Brent live in the first floor apartment that comes with two cats (named after Cecil Taylor and Art Blakey), but the fifth-floor studio, where Aaron and I will live for the next 17 hours, has none. (I write this sad fact down as a notation, "no cats," when recording the room numbers on a quad-grid index card.)

Here we are then. Just a few hours left now before the earth's tectonic plates will shift and crack and realign the whole world, a vast trembling tri-tone of reconnection and regained unity flowing forward, three masters once again shuddering into action.


The Miller Theatre at Columbia University, and All of the Wonderful Things That We Find There : : :

𝅘𝅥𝅯 We're in through the south entrance of the lobby, and on the far side we see Sam's daughter Monique talking with the stage manager and the WKCR reps. Since I've never met her face-to-face, I decide to introduce myself with a phone call, and I key in her cell number. She looks down at her cellphone, excuses herself from the small crowd, and says "Hello?" "Monique? This is Rick Lopez! Where are you?"

"I'm in the lobby," she says, wheeling and strolling away from her conversation. "Rick! I'm so glad you've made it. Where are you now?" (She's walking towards us but not yet aware she's talking to me.)

"I'm in the lobby with my son, looking for you."

Her grin turns quickly into a broadening smile as she sees us: "Is that you???"

Laughing now and putting her arms out and rushing to meet us, I'm still talking into the phone: "Wait, don't hang up on me!"

And now she's laughing out loud and hugging me as I'm introducing my son through the fabric on her shoulder, nothing better than an honest embrace, and we tell her of our excitement and our gratitude for the invite and she'll have none of it. "You don't need to thank us! We should be thanking you, for all the tremendous work you do, we're so grateful, my father is so grateful to you."

And I am amazed and humbled that my inability to reign in my obsessions ends up earning me compliments from my heroes. I had talked to Aaron about this on the way down, how incredible it all is; that I have several saved phone messages from Sam on my answering machine at home ("hellooooo! Rick! It's Sam, Sam Riiiiverrrs!"), that he calls me; that it may be part of my perceived "gift" that I am unassuming to a fault, and that I am really not aware in my normal day-to-day of what it is that I'm doing and how others perceive it--caught up so firmly and dragged down so completely and inexorably into the things that I embrace, and always surprised to hear the praise and perceptions of others--and that the fact of its all being hidden from me, of its existence outside the field of my hard focus, is perhaps my saving grace. "I imagine if I had a clue I could be a real asshole!" I tell Aaron during our drive, and we marvel at the happy circumstance of my boundless disconnect.

𝅘𝅥𝅯 We dine across the street with David Belkin, an old jazz friend, trading stories and re-aligning ourselves to one another, offering up pictures of all of our offspring--then an hour later, we say our good-byes and wander back to the theatre lobby. The air there is electric, snapping with anticipatory currents and voices barely able to restrain themselves.

𝅘𝅥𝅯 Aaron and I are accosted by Monique, who wraps me in embraces again and tells me we're sitting in the reserved section up front with "the family," which we later find to be a vast hundred-member tribe of the Rivers' clan augmented by crowds of famous musicians. "You must say hello to my father!" And she drags us through a wall of curtains and down wide staircases and high-ceilinged backstage hallways. "DAD!?!" she yells as we near the light spilling from an open door, and as I turn the corner Sam's got cheese in his mouth and crackers in his hands and he's rising and smiling and saying my name and again I'm in his arms thinking what the hell have I done to deserve this? Is there a larger compliment to be had than to be embraced and recognized by those you hold in the highest esteem? How is it possible that I fit into this picture?

I whispered into his eighty-three-year-old ear: "Play good Sam," and I re-introduce my son, and there is such giddiness to the banter that I realize I don't really understand anything. And it's all perfect.

𝅘𝅥𝅯 Back out into the theatre lobby now, where the line goes three wide up the stairs and out the door and ribbons down Broadway in an expectant rocking din. I see familiar faces everywhere, I want name-tags, and I point out the ones I'm certain of to my boy and mutter continuously to him on who the rest might be. I just want to scream.

𝅘𝅥𝅯 Free Jazz bassist nonpareil William Parker comes down the stairs with his wife and dancer Patricia Nicholson-Parker. William is in gorgeous garb, the African patterns and flash of colors topping out a pair of high-top sneakers that appear to be painted red. He lopes down to the ticket table and I tell him that I've heard he had a good old time with the hard-copy of the Sessionography. He asks if he has remembered to send me the corrections yet. "No!" I cajole, "do it!"

AUMFidelity's Steven Joerg arrives, having left the Rastafari poetic I do so love at home tonight, and I'm so misty-headed that I don't recognize him right away, then I foggily shake his hand and find my mouth filled with cotton balls trying to talk to him.

Sax-man Ras Moshe (the Music Now Society!), whose emails are all massive exclamatories and giant bold letters and dark underlines and high-volume excitement, surprises me by being very, very Big & Tall and speaking to me in the hushed voice of a priest hearing my confession. He's telling me about "saving his coin" to get here, and he looks to be about as awed and unprepared as I am.

Joe Daley, the famous tuba player who was the bottom-carrying member of Rivers' "TUBA TRIO" (along with drummer Warren Smith) in the 1970's, sits right in front of us with his perfect bald head and his perpetual smile. I had to hold back from laying my hands upon his glowing ebony dome.

𝅘𝅥𝅯 And then I saw the musicWitness©, Jeff Schlanger, hugging the front of the stage with his painting kit. The floor was covered with thick black plastic that rose up like a dark wave and rolled itself onto the plateau of the stage, the center held down by a black easel layered with large sheets of white paper. The rising back of the wave held black trays and cubbies lined with brushes and tiny bottles of vibrant paints, all surrounding a black bench where he sat arranging it all, preparing for the action to come. He was dressed all in black as well, a dark figure disappearing into the space in which he worked.

"I hear we're accepting embraces today," I said sneaking up behind him, and he turned and rose and pulled me in and began to speak his song to me, a long conversational revelation sung in quaver-notes of truth and intention that I understood immediately and completely, bending now with my head beside his to catch his every word and every meaning as his hands gripped mine and he spoke his song, a song to me:

"We need you man, we need you back, we need that Lopez spirit coming out to conquer the universe, that energy you put out man, we miss it! Do you understand?" and I was imagining how easy it would be to just let go and fall sobbing to the floor. "This thing you've been doing, this College thing, it's taken you away. There are people out here who need you back, who need that power you generate, that invincibility we all used to hear in your messages. But the last year or so, man-- It's been all one note, hasn't it?"

A wave of bone-crushing sadness hit and held me down for a full eighth of a second, during which I heard a monotone chorus of my communications sent within the last year to the Music Research network:

"I am selling ALMOST EVERYTHING in my collection. The anguish is palpable."

"Crazy here. You know the drill."

"Update, money needed, I'm serious."

"Perhaps a sign of increasing desperation???"

"I'm doing well, but still way out of touch."

"I need to get through this next 8 weeks--my finances are for shit.

And I was stunned by the flash and its clarity--how apparent it was, and how completely I had missed it--its invisibility to me made complete by my being too far gone inside myself, and I pushed it off and squeezed his hand harder as I answered his question: "It was all 'HELP,' right? All I've been saying lately is 'HELP!'"

And he looked up and shot my eyes, looked to my son to pull him in and then hard back at me, testifying and clearing the path: "Yes! Help! Desperation! You need to come back closer to where you were man, people here look to you for that vision thing, you have to keep that going because we depend on that, it feeds us, it keeps everyone strong..." and he was telling me something important, something that I did not know: that I somehow belonged to them and to this world, this high-wheeling crazed sub-culture and all its overflowing genius, and I was healed I say HEALED goddammit, picked up and dusted off and stunned at how every turn and twist of this developing adventure had worked like infinite spokes on some conjuring wheel that was drawing me into a central hub reverberating with focus and heat and direction.

All these converging signals writ large. The planned trip with friends had evolved into a long-wished-for soul-clasp with my hungry son; the logistics had veered into an unlikely vacation package of every comfort and accommodation we could have asked for; and the humbling generosity and endless welcomes we found everywhere we went were a supporting framework for the work I needed to do in my future, a future that had spun off track and become a train wreck of jumbled priorities and distracting impediments that had me recently questioning nearly every aspect of my so-called life.

I promised re-dedication and thanked him, and we left him to his preparations and moved to our seats, the lights slowly dimming and the house thrumming.

𝅘𝅥𝅯 Mister Samuel Carthorne Rivers, the stately octogenarian free jazz icon, now walks onto the stage to an explosive outpouring of recognition. The crowd rises as one and an ovation begins that threatens to never end, Sam standing with the long bones of his fingers entwined in front of him, smiling broadly, nodding and scanning the crowd saying "Thank you, thank you," over and over, and the intensity building, people shouting his name, Sam answering with his signature tonal whoops and howls, "WHOOOoooooo," giggling now and taking it all in, "thank you, thank you so much."

𝅘𝅥𝅯 It went on for several minutes, and then there was a hush, everyone thinking "at last," as Rivers carefully took up his tenor and leaned back against his stool. I grabbed Aaron's shoulder in the whispering darkness and shook it gently: "I love you Aaron," and my grinning thirty-two-year-old spawn gave it right back.


All I Really Need Is the Music : : :

I remember the first time the sound of this man's tenor really took hold of me. It was an early Blue Note session that I had listened to before through the years, but this time I was drawn to the reed voicings of Sam Rivers. I heard it on the very same day, early in the year 1997, that I became a "discographer." (I remember an email I sent to Alan Saul, he of the Eric Dolphy Discography: "How does a person go about...") It literally changed my life, inspiring me to enter into an entirely new world where my previous enjoyment of deep investigation and exploration now had a productive and public purpose. That tone, that lush, exquisite, conversational tone is here tonight. It is a living wave-form built of thick undulating layers of articulation and substance; a smeared, tumbling expressiveness that bursts and bobs and weaves itself in beyond your ears; a beautiful expression of a good and great man's soul.

The concert was like blissful time-travel. Instant and sustained rapport, with Dave Holland's powerful world-class bass divinations and the pattering complimentary sticking of Barry Altschul creating a flowing stream of spontaneous creation, Rivers floating into and out of eddies and whorls, then suddenly the trio would burst full-flight into the air and drive an abstract swing-beat skyward until it nearly exploded, reaching the clouds then and settling in gently to search for sounds and speech in a shuffle of convergences and beauty. This was so moving-that after 35 years these three could still tell the kinds of fantastic tales they'd spun from golden air and silence back in their youthful days-and Holland was beaming and flushed red with joy watching Sam and listening to the melodic magic he was playing out; Altschul looked as if the reality of his presence there, in this company and on this night, was as awe-inspiring for him as it was for any of us. They improvised for an hour without stopping, Sam eventually moving from tenor to thepiano, and then to the high-register soprano sax, and then to the flute, holding the balance on them all between tradition and the future, conspiring to tell us everything he knew and everything he ever was.

Intermission: Cecil fucking Taylor is here. (I'm sorry, there's really no other way to say it.)

Honestly, everyone just mills around sort of numb and speechless, saying things like "Oh my G-d," and "MAN-oh-MAN," and "Wow." A room full of large-brained mammals made inarticulate and slightly crazy, all steeped in the miracle of their presence at this most signature of events.

The second set is nearly as long, of segues between rocketing swing, swaying Latino beats, chatterings of funk, tornado blurs of free-form communion, and slow, beatific, caressing melodies. Sam is visually frail and leaning into the stool behind him all night, but furious and simmering in his playing. It ends too soon, too soon, at least for the enrapt audience, and the ovation afterwards is long and emotional, as we all try to avoid letting go.

"When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air," as Eric Dolphy said. And William Parker: "What was played, in what order, it all is like the same concert, it is constantly transforming into itself, an ongoing endless One Gig." It's "One continuous push to bring beauty in[to] a world of madness and frustration," as the late Glenn Spearman said one day, and says to me still through his music. . . .

The lobby is booming with talk and activity afterwards, people in groups expounding; a thick crowd pressed to the row of tables stacked with memorabilia and recordings. "Sam will be available to sign items for you all tonight," Monique informs the assembled, and later she will tell me again that the Rivers archive is headed my way. "You're going to hate me," she says. "You don't know me," I reply.

Aaron and I stroll through the crowd and squeeze into the beginnings of a line forming to wait for Sam, and I'm marveling at how everything has recently dropped from the sky and fallen so definitively into my lap. Re-dedication, indeed. There are only a few attendees in front of us, and when we get up front I use Aaron's cell to take pictures of Monique: "It's Monique Rivers wheeling and dealing! She's in control!" CLICK, and we're all laughing as I explain that I don't want anything signed, I just want to say good-bye and embrace the man. He's at once so frail and so strong. I want my arms to feed life-force into him, as if he needs it, as if he needs anything. "Thank you for all that you do," he tells me, echoing a saved telephone call I will keep forever.

Wham! BAM. Thank you Sam.

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