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Greg Osby Remembers Sam Rivers

The saxophonist recalls the highly influential composer and multi-instrumentalist

Sam Rivers

As a person, Sam Rivers was warm but wryly critical. He didn’t criticize anybody outright, but he let it be known what he was and wasn’t into. As a player, he’s been dismissed as being sloppy or slipshod, but the cat was a technical genius. I marveled at the way he was able to conjure the wildest configurations from very simple structures on the saxophone. He was like an architect, in that he would start with the foundation and then build up from there. It was very vertical, the way he played. And he brought two disparate elements together-his playing was very intellectual and also very raw. He could be the brainiest and yet the most basic at the same time. You definitely hear the roadhouse element in his playing. He was like the master of grace and fire.

As a composer, Sam was a sterling representation of the artful merging of craft and logic with art-mood and feeling and space. All of those elements that would prod and catapult the musicians along were like the mortar that held the bricks of his songs together, and you had to rely upon every access point that you had to negotiate within that. You know, you can’t navigate a Sam Rivers song with standard bebop licks. You have to be really in the moment and know how to alter and modify your material on the spot. And his compositions just provided a blueprint of how to do it. It was like a deliberate formatting of logic and reason combined with all of the human elements that are sorely missing in a lot of left-brain-style music today. Some things can become so highbrow and so removed from the earth. Sam had no issues with that.

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