Sam Rivers holds a rare place in the hierarchy of contemporary jazz. Since the late 1950s, he has shared stages with legendary figures across the spectrum, from one-of-a-kind vocalist Billie Holiday and bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie to chameleonlike bandleader Miles Davis and out-jazz founder Cecil Taylor. An essential link to the music's early traditions and a spiritual guru to the next-wave avant-garde, Rivers is one of the last living bridges between the old and new schools.
A world-class improviser on tenor and soprano saxes, flute, and piano, the 70-year-old Rivers has the energy and imagination of a player half his age. He's also a formidable composer, with over 400 works spanning a startling range of stylistic invention, from updates on familiar jazz forms to complex, forward-pushing atonal structures.
His latest projects include a wildly versatile trio, which jammed Bruno's for a whirlwind three-night stint this past spring, and a Grammy-nominated big band. The trio — featuring thirtysomething players Doug Matthews on upright bass, electric bass, and clarinet and Anthony Cole on drums, tenor sax, and piano — moves organically through a mind-boggling variety of instrumental configurations, tight compositions, and free-form astral jams. The big band, which stems from Rivers' late-'70s New York “Loft Scene” associations with instrumentalists like Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, packs the kaleidoscopic punch of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in its prime, with a panoramic vision that's distinctly Sam Rivers.