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Book Review

The Sam Rivers Sessionography: A Work in Progress


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The Sam Rivers Sessionography: A Work in Progress
Rick Lopez
768 Pages
ISBN: # 9 780578 948713
The Vortex

Twenty-five years in the making, Rick Lopez's 768-page opus The Sam Rivers Sessionography: A Work in Progress is a dizzying, stunning achievement of research and scholarship that stands as a one-of-a-kind standard for a genre that Lopez has practically invented by himself, starting with his previous William Parker sessionography (in print), and his online sessionographies of Out Jazz artists such as Marilyn Crispell and Glenn Spearman. A meta journey through the practice of archiving and research, this is a formidable work by a free jazz freak/geek/fanatic with an "accursed obsession" as he describes his urge to document the activities of his favorite musicians.

The book chronologically documents the activity of multi-instrumentalist (soprano and tenor saxophones, flute, violin, piano) and composer Sam Rivers (1923-2011) from his early years in Chicago and Little Rock, Arkansas, to his years in the Navy in World War II, to postwar Boston, where he studied at the Boston Conservatory and played with musicians such as Jaki Byard, Gigi Gryce, Charlie Mariano and a very young Tony Williams, before moving in the late 1960s to New York City, where he eventually established Studio RivBea at 24 Bond Street as a rehearsal/workshop/performance space that was the unofficial flagship of the loft jazz scene from 1972 to 1978 until a flood forced Rivers to relocate to New Jersey, and then to his later years in Orlando, Florida, from the early 1990s onward. Along the way, Rivers recorded albums for Blue Note, played in the bands of Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor, formed a long-lasting and productive musical relationship with bassist Dave Holland, and toured with Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1980s. The recording that he is most known for is probably Conference of the Birds (1972) with Holland, drummer Barry Altschul, and Anthony Braxton.

In the mid-1990s, Lopez, who lives in a kind of rich impoverishment in the Rust Belt city of Erie, Pennsylvania, encountered Rivers' Blue Note recordings from the 1960s, became obsessed with Rivers' playing and composing, and immediately dove into collecting as many live recordings of Rivers as he could in the tape-trading community. Along the way, Lopez became friends with Rivers and his family. Lopez dates the beginning of the sessionography project to March 1997, cemented in October of that year at a Sam Rivers Trio date in Erie followed by dinner at a Chinese restaurant with Sam and his wife, Beatrice, after whom Studio RivBea was named. Beatrice Rivers took care of the business end of her husband's activities, including booking tour dates. When Beatrice died in 2005, their daughter, Monique, took over her father's business affairs. She describes trying to figure out who all of Rivers' associates were. When she asked Sam about Lopez, he told her to give Lopez whatever he wanted. In 2007, Monique informed Lopez that the complete Rivers archive of recordings, scores, photos, and what have you was being digitized and would be made available to him—something Lopez had not asked for! This act of generosity was, of course, the key to the project of assembling the sessionography. Archive in hand, Lopez has pieced together all the bits of the loaned Rivers archive and placed them in chronological order. Interspersed through the "narrative" are the pieces of interviews that Sam Rivers did with (especially) Ted Panken and other journalists as well as comments about Rivers by musicians who played with him and knew him and his music well. The book also contains some 600 photos, gig posters, and live performance notices from the Village Voice and other print publications.

Reading the huge volume is a joyful, sometimes psychedelic experience. Little nuggets of mind-tickling information appear here and there. Steve Coleman, who spent a lot of time at Studio RivBea and was taken under the Rivers' wing, describes Rivers and his wife Beatrice as not exactly conventional; or the detail that Beatrice, who was studying voice and piano at the Boston Conservatory when she met Rivers in the fall of 1947, could vocally reproduce Sam's solos. Especially amusing are Lopez's notes and asides about the difficulties of nailing down exact information about musicians on recordings of live dates, including how long it took to go through all issues of the Village Voice in searching for information about Rivers' activities. (There are reasons why this project took 25 years). It's unlikely that anyone, save perhaps Lopez and his proofreader John Chacona or close collaborator Ed Hazell will ever read this book from front to back, but no matter. Music nerds can trace the development of Rivers' playing and composing by following the list of live gigs, concerts, and radio broadcasts. One can also dip into this beast of a book at any point and find pleasure and enlightenment in comments by Rivers or Beatrice or musicians who worked with Rivers over his long and very active career. If you want to know what Rivers was doing on the day you got married, you might very well find that information in the volume. And naturally, the book pairs well with music by Sam Rivers.

While Lopez's Sam Rivers Sessionography stands as a monument to one man's love for the work of another man, the book is also a tribute to the deep love between Sam Rivers and his wife, Beatrice. Lopez dedicates the book to Beatrice Rivers "(without whom)," as he writes in the dedication. Again and again in testimony from associates of Rivers we hear of the important part that Beatrice Rivers had on her husband's work. Beatrice took care of the business so that Sam could take care of the music, and it is clear from what is said in the book that Sam regarded Beatrice as an equal partner in the family enterprise.

It should also be noted that Lopez's wife, Sandra, by happy coincidence is an archivist by training and trade, and it seems fitting that the Sam Rivers Sessionography exists mainly because of two unshakeable domestic partnerships.

Highly recommended.

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