Planetary Alignments, Bird Sightings, Totemic Travels
and the Revelations in Events Unfolding.
The Sam Rivers Trio, New York City, May 25th, 2007
Start Spreading the News
A few weeks ago I received the incredible news that the legendary tenor man Sam Rivers was being re-united in a concert at Columbia University with his legendary ground-breaking trio from the '70s. Along with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul, Rivers was primarily responsible, following several brilliant years of Blue Note albums and tours with Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor, for starting the "loft jazz" scene in Manhattan back then. These were artist-owned performance spaces that usually presented music seven nights per week, and most days as well. Rivers' space was called "Studio RivBEA," named after the late goddess Beatrice, for whom he also wrote one of the most beautiful and conversational ballads anyone has ever heard. He's now 83, as gaunt and lively as ever, and so please stay with me here!
In February I celebrated the 10th Anniversary of my falling head-first into the drowning waters of Music Research. Most of you aren't really sure what that means, even though you may have heard about my involvement before. The short form ::: I have several gigantic research documents posted on-line that cover the careers of several major "OUT" jazz figures. You know: the free-of-anyone-else's-rules style. The impassioned abandon style. The soul-pouring-out style. The crazy shit. And why? Because I need More, as in transporting, transcendent, transforming, life-changing, liberating, spiritually uplifting, mind-expanding SOUNDs like you ain't never heard. These documents trace, in somewhat ridiculous detail, the paths of my subjects' musical history, and are cited in dictionaries, books, CD liner-notes, magazine articles, etc. I CAN'T HELP IT. You all understand that part.
But to be precise... I've given copies of these documents to a few of the artists themselves on occasion, and so one day back in late 2003 I hit PRINT on my computer at 7PM and the thing stopped churning at 4PM the next day, having spat out the William Parker Sessionography in all of its small print single-spaced glory. I then had to hit Office-Max for large, fat, sturdy binders so that the 400+ pages wouldn't scatter across the parking lot as I tried lugging them out to the car, and I delivered this "book" to Mr. Parker that night at a concert in Buffalo, NY, and was later pleased to learn that he had spent several subsequent nights on the tour sitting on his hotel bed, slowly turning the endless pages in stunned amazement.
There are those who would credit me abundantly with this work, but all that I see from inside is the just barely justifying and blessed fruit of my otherwise accursed obsessions.
Sam Rivers, a few years ago.
In This Regard Then
When I received the news that this trio was to be re-united (after 35 years!) for a concert at Columbia University's Miller Theatre in New York City on Friday the 25th of May, it came via multiple drooling and panting sources. WKCR-FM, the student-run (and also legendary) New York jazz station let me know that they were preparing a one-hundred-and-seventy-seven-hour week-long broadcast (yes: 177 hours), that would wend its way through Sam's complete discography, and they requested from me a substantial list of archival recordings, mostly un-released audience and broadcast recordings that are in my collection (got from the amazing "tape trader" sub-culture, but that's another nearly impossible to explain part of this story). This then turned into a massive trade of another sort: WKCR will soon set loose a band of interns that will clamber through the vast station holdings, in search of any and all bits of info they may find there that concern my main research subjects (Marilyn Crispell, William Parker, Sam Rivers, Glenn Spearman, and David S. Ware), and they then invited me to come running to New York for the concert. How is all of this possible?
A few milliseconds later, I was on the phone with Monique Williams, Sam's daughter, who informed me that she was having Sam's personal archive digitized by various Universities and Recording Studios and Helpful Individuals, and that copies of them all would be sent to me. So that I might "find out what is there." Wait: Does anyone comprehend what's going on here? This is a mother-lode; a dream-come-true; a treasure-trove of text and sound that will soon bury me in mounds of previously unheard recordings, gobs of previously inaccessible information, vats of musical honey, warm showers of sweet cream, dark chocolate drizzlings, powdered cinnamon fluff and blankets of soft downy cat-belly fur in which I will throw myself down and ecstatically expire. History! Knowledge! Thank you Jesus!
Anyway, there follows a flurry of fantastic inviting e-mails and phone calls, and my beloved wife Sandra tells me that I can't NOT go. I mention it to dear friend John Chacona, he of the Signal-to-Noise reviews and big ears, and he says it sounds like an idea. A few days later I mention the concert to a musician friend named Steve, and he, gob-smacked at the prospect, immediately tells me he will provide transportation. I realize then that this is a mercenary affair, as I drop the Chacona hit (noncommittal, likely going on his own, no time for love...), and tell Steve "We're on!" We will leave very early morning Friday and return early Saturday. All seems to be falling into place.
I mention all of this to my beloved son Aaron, whose life is so full that I would not have thought his presence possible, and who astonishes me by saying that he will join me. Then a furious attempt to find cheap lodgings, accumulate funds, arrange arrangements, remain conscious, avoid stumbling, and make absolutely goddamned sure that I get there. No obstacles accepted!
And then the strange and perfect machinations of my glorious world began to click as if pre-ordained.
Oh No You Don't!
That is what my friend said to me. I hold no ill feelings. I still love him. I have no arguments or qualms or bad icky suppressed urges to kill him with a claw-hammer or anything like that, anything like that at all. Honest. I am as patient and compassionate and understanding as anyone, and I also know when all is lost, and when it is time to jump ship.
- I call musician friend Steve a full week pre-concert. He will stop by to discuss and firm up plans on Sunday the 19th, "noon-ish." Sadly, he never shows, never calls. But that's fine. I'm easy.
- I call Monday and leave a message on his cell, trying not to sound anxious, but nearing a firmer grasp of the situation somewhere in the recesses. Of my poor mind.
- Late Tuesday he returns my call.
Okay, he says, we can leave after his class Friday morning, hit the road around 10:45 a.m...
Oh no, I say. We must leave very early Friday morning, this I told you, I told you so, what is your meaning, what is the meaning of these words you say, what are you saying?
Then a tad wee smattering of how long does it take (6.5 hours) oh that's not bad (it's not good) oh it's not that far (oh yes it is) and finally he says to me...
Finally He Says: "We'll probably make it on time..."
"We'll probably make it on time..."
The hell we will.
Okay, called THRIFTY Rental and reserved an "Economy Class" KIA gas-efficient itty-bitty vehicle for the trip that I was now making, just perfectly as it happens, with my son Aaron. Unlimited miles; fill the tank; $60 for 48 hours. Not bad.
An e-mail appears from Brent Hayes Edwards, aka now and in future to my son and I as "Mr. Fabulous," he of Yale, Columbia U., and Rutgers connections, who reminds me that he is "the scholar working on the lofts..." (his next book, on the loft jazz scene, Alternate Tracks: The Politics of Experimentation and Collaboration in New York Jazz, 1972-1982) "...whom you were kind enough to lend many of your Rivers CDRs a while back."
He continues: "Do you need a place to stay tomorrow night? I live just a few blocks from Columbia, and have an extra space..." Click. Click.
How many people in Manhattan have extra space? How many of those have I by chance helped with research projects, and how many of the remainder also happen to live two blocks from where I'm going?
Further hits accrue. Jeffrey Schlanger, the famed MusicWitness© who has been "painting" improvisational music performances as they happen for lo these many inspired decades, invites me to find him and his paints front-stage for embraces and salutations; and Steven Joerg of AUMFidelity Records requests a close-up to-do so that he may "bat [me] about the ears a bit..."
Amidst these and other swirling words and welcomes and visitations from people I've been indelibly connected to and who have helped me and informed me and encouraged me to continue doing whatever the hell it is that I do, I began to remember how deeply those fine and valuable threads had been woven into me, and how many cherished ties and tethers I'd let slip the past few years as I threw myself into the University Experience... how I had once again replaced in large part a former obsession with the next one coming, shifting the priorities and the investments of time and attention... And I was sad that I had drifted away, and glad to feel the pull back.
Then Came the Day, the Longed for Day
The musician friend never called back.
On Thursday evening I drove to the airport in Erie, PA, to pick up the rental car, and the coughing young lady behind the counter apologized: "We don't have any economy class vehicles here right now..."
She told me that I could have the same rate on another car.
"Can I pick?" I asked.
"If I don't like the color can I have it painted?" I asked.
"If the gas mileage is unacceptable will you give me a hundred dollars?" I asked.
Ha-ha. I am such a kidder...
"Would you like a Charger?" she asked, coughing.
"Not really," I said, picturing Dukes of Hazzard and shit like that.
"How about a Chrysler 300 Luxury Sedan So Gigged Out You'll Hardly Know How to Drive It?"
Well. I took a peek at the picture she set atop the counter, and I smiled a bit. "Same rate you say?"
Moving right along: Shiny. Silver. Brand New. Far more comfortable than my living room. The user's manual was still shrink-wrapped. It had the factory smell. Satellite radio; CD player with kick-ass sound system; lights that dimmed eeeever-sooooo-sloooooooowly when you turned them off. And they did so with feeling, a diminuendo!
A Brief Series of Events Which...
- 7:00 AM, Friday the 25th, in line at Starbucks. As the girl is bagging the last two (2) cinnamon-chip scones on this dying earth into my little paper bag, she remarks to a young lady a few folk behind us that "You'll have to decide on something else with your coffee today," to which I say "No-no, you must give her what she wants, and please make my second scone a low-fat blueberry whatever instead." The woman later approaches my son and I before leaving, thanking us and promising to "pay it forward." We didn't "have to do that" she says. Aaron and I begin our journey with a Quad-Venti-Organic-Latte toast: "Happy Friday," and spend the first half-hour talking about how simple (and important) it is to seize any opportunity to change someone's day. Or week. Or life.
- Bird Sighting #1 ::: Just a few moments after hitting I-79 South, a Great Blue Heron soars across the morning sky. This has become one of my signature omens, the Great Blues appearing before me whenever I need them to, or whenever something momentous is afoot... This happens—this kind of thing happens— with ridiculous predictability, as if a hallucinatory game were being played with me as the wide-eyed game piece, and it makes me shout, and it makes me roll my eyes and lift my hands to the uncaring sky... Where this kind of "meaningful" coincidence is concerned: I don't really "believe" in it, but I absolutely believe in the poetry of it.
- Now I'm a Honda guy—a real fan of practicality and the avoidance of monetary imbalance—but this Chrysler 300 is SO comfortable and quiet and stable that we're both grinning at the hopped-up luxury level. Nice car!
- Bird Sighting #2 ::: An hour later and a few miles west of I-79 heading east on I-80, and we spot a small Green Heron scatting across the sky directly in front of us, its condensed version of the Great Blue's body moving like like some fat feathered bullet: Omen.
- We talk. And we talk. Then we talk some more. Sam Rivers and the precise overtone-laden squall of his reed-playing on Tony Williams' Spring (on the Blue Note label, one of Sam's earliest recordings, from August 12th, 1965!), is way down low in our background, and we're not actively listening at all, not for a moment, but Sam is nonetheless there, his tone accompanying us, as we gab constantly for the next eight hours or so, communing deeply, feeding one another's heads, moving at 80mph towards a meeting with one of our mutual heroes, and whenever the talk subsides for just a moment, the spiraling phrases of his horn come creeping up into our open ears and our open hearts, reeling us in, signaling the way to go.
Sam Rivers, the Blue Note Era.
Photo by Francis Wolff, the 65.05.21 Contours
When lunch time appears, and then disappears, I begin digesting my own stomach, and to avoid vanishing altogether I first consider The Olive Tree in downtown Williamsport (!Sophia!), but it seems to be a delaying 18 miles north of the Interstate off Exit 210-B, and I want Manhattan.
A minute later and we stop at Milton Exit 212-A to gas up and pee. The credit card reader is faulty at the pump I choose, and as I'm fumbling for another, Aaron slides past me to check the first one at the next pump, gently bumping the door and sending it car-ward with a muffled click. I glance inside and see the keys on the seat where I had just tossed them, and we begin laughing as we discover that we're locked out. HA! A twenty minute delay making a dozen phone calls to Thrifty Rental and Triple-A ends when my competent boy pays six dollars for a thin strip of shiny metal meant to trim out a big-rig somewhere, and he bends it just right and fishes the knob up and we're on the road again, canceling the service calls. The Arizona Cafe and the Mexican food I want them to serve us at Exit 254 further east at Danville is closed this afternoon (WHY?) and so we push on, actively starving, until we hit...
...Tannersville, Exit 299, then a mile north to Route 611 and Northwest Espresso, actually nestled in a small nondescript mud-colored plaza in the "Scotrun" section of town. Here we are, my son and I, walking in on an elderly woman whose face has a heavy grim veil pulled over it as we enter. I have on my small oval cobalt-blue shades, which makes me somewhat resemble, I am told,
Woody Harrelson as seen in Natural Born Killers, although instead of being totally and threateningly bald, I'm topped out with very short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Genetics being what they are, my son, who is taller and much more solidly built than my wiry ass, and more completely bald than anyone, looks almost exactly like Woody Harrelson as seen in Natural Born Killers, and it is clear as I begin talking that she suspects she is about to be beaten and robbed. I turn on the charm, trying to ease her fears, and she hesitates a beat before allowing me access to the private restroom. Unbeknownst to me, my son, asked what he might want, mumbles something about not being sure and waiting for me to return as he scans the menu board, which only adds to her anguish. When I return, I chat her up as cheerfully as I can, yum-yumming over the plates of cookies in the display case and the brownies and muffins covering the trays, oohing-and-ahhing at the displays of Egyptian art and various locally-made jewelry, and finally saying to my son, as she disappears into the back kitchen, that she seems to think we're going to kill her. "Yes," he says, steeped in Psych-Major training and Law-Enforcement Know-How, "she does indeed."
When she comes back, things ease up as the talk turns to birdies. Bird Sighting #3 involves a long row of feathers of many shapes and sizes tucked neatly into the space between the far wall and a horizontal white power strip, and she becomes engaged, pointing to them one-by-one and naming their origin: "Emu; then three African parrots; a blue jay..." "I knew that one!" I exclaim goofily, and she continues through cardinals and exotic love birds until I pat the black enamel Crow silhouette pinned to my shirt and tell her "I love birds. Especially the Corvids."
Incidents with birds, and the birds themselves, follow me everywhere always, because I care for them, and because they know that I do. Again, I don't "believe" in this, but the poetry of it is where I live. "Oh yes!" she says, launching into an essay inspired by a National Geographic documentary and its tests on Ravens and Crows (the Ravens win), and as she rambles on with her back to us I suddenly realize that I in fact DO have to rob her. Nothing involving violence or threats, and nothing involving the cash drawer: I am gazing down with awe at a Day-by-Day "Zen Calendar," and having just read and been deeply moved by poet Rainer Maria Rilke's incredible little book Letters on Cezanne and all of the ways in which it both informed me and spoke to changes and becomings happening in my own life as well, I was astonished to see the page for this day, Friday, May 25th...
"And do not change.
Do not divert your love from visible things.
But go on loving what is good, simple and ordinary;
animals and things and flowers,
and keep the balance true."
—Rainer Maria Rilke
I stole that page. I just had to. Me and my Secular Franciscan frame of reference gave thanks to the flawless narrative of the universe, tore it slowly from atop the thick block of paper and tucked it into my man-purse. Her coffee was great, and the pastries as well, and we were hoping that she was still cloaked in all of the charm we had showered upon her before we left, when an hour later we coasted to a stop at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, preparing to play stop-action bumper-cars with a honking jostling crowd of millions.
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 phonecall, 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 Riiivers!"), 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 ass-hole!" I tell Aaron during our drive, and we marvel at the happy circumstance of my boundless disconnect.
We dine across the street with an old 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. She drags us through a wall of curtains and down wide staircases and high-ceilinged back-stage hallways: "You must say hello to my father." "DAD!?!" she yells as we near the light spilling from an open door, and as I turn the corner he'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 recognized and embraced by those you hold in the highest esteem? How is it possible that I fit into this picture?
I say softly 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 while trying to talk to him.
Sax-man Ras Moshe (the Music Now Society!), whose e-mails 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 as awed and unprepared as I am.
Joe Daley, the famous tuba player who was the bottom-carrying member of Rivers' "TUBA TRIO" (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©, Jeffrey 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 perfectly, 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 sh*t."
...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 of me and squeezed his hand harder as I answered his question:
"It was all '!HELP!,' right? All I've been saying lately is '!HELP!'..."
And MusicWitness© 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 crazed high-wheeling 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.
The Miller Theatre, May 25th, 2007.
One of many splendid color
photos by James Darcy Argue, of which many more are here
This one has been shrunk, color-sapped, and drastically cropped, all with permission.
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 e-mail I sent to Alan Saul 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 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, long absent from the music scene, 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 the high-register soprano sax, and then to the piano, 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 "Wow," and "Oh my G-d," and "MAN-oh-MAN." 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, another hour 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 crowd, 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 Williams 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.
Thank you Sam.
After-Glow, Glowing After
We're out in the night, loping down Broadway and talking it through, basking in it, allowing the perspective to come creeping in. We walk past late-night crowds, people in doorways, bookshops all closed up for the day, a Starbucks every two blocks, and crowded sidewalk tables outside bars and restaurants, serenaded by the constant honking of cabs (the ones close pleasantly loud and joyful, and the background of hundreds of others at diminishing volumes from all over the city, an orchestra of the streets, chord progressions hurtling between tall buildings, even the automotive world improvising.) We are waylaid by Nussbaum & Wu's Bagel and Bakery, and I call Brent to let him know we're on our way while we fill a bag with blueberry smoothies, juices, a tiramisu for Aaron, a dangerous-looking brownie for me, and a dozen walnut and raspberry rugalach for our hosts.
Back the way we came, past the Miller Theatre. Sam was still inside signing for a few stragglers—the helpless ones who couldn't tear themselves away. When we had come out onto the sidewalk after saying our good-byes, Joe Daley had been out front, laughing out loud, accosted by a mob of ruly chattering fans with LPs and CDs held out in front of them, me yelling "It's the RivBEA Happy Hour!" as we went merrily past, but now all was quiet, everyone gone home to dream.
Brent and Nora are up, wining and dining, and they pull up chairs and warm cats for us at their table. We talk about the concert and its wonders; about various researchers known and unknown—the wise ones, the quirky ones, the brilliant ones and the paranoid ones, the humorless ones and the screaming geniuses—all doing their part writing and recording the history. ("Attempting a complete historical arc," as I say on my web-site.) The cats soon collapse in incomprehensible heaps on the floor, and we're near doing the same, so we say goodnight and sneak upstairs to eat decadent pastries.
Aaron is speechless while he eats his tiramisu, which I imagine to mean something. My brownie is frightening. It looks wet. I hold it up to Aaron and tell him that for all I know it could be a brick of pressed shit. It's about three-quarters-of-an-inch thick; the bottom half is a base made of a heavy chocolate cake-like substance that has the density of an adobe wall; the top is a black-black fudge-like substance that slices like wet clay; and when I bite into it I begin crying, no not really, but it is so smoothly cocoa-y and surprisingly not at all too sweet, that my heart, my heart, and we hum and moan in fascinatin' rhythm as the trains rumble by below our fifth-floor window, and all is right in the world on this extraordinary day in New York.
It's around 12:30 AM and I am in my boxers and a t-shirt flat on my back on a most comfortable studio bed, and Aaron appears in his boxers and a tank-top and hits the sofa-bed a few feet away. It's like a slumber party! We are both lying down: Then one of us says something and we are both sitting up, leaning on our elbows in the half-dark jabbering like excited children. Then settling in and lying down again and instantly sitting up again as soon as one of us breaks the silence. We bob up and down like this, first exhausted and drifting away, then bouncing back to face one another, unable to stop talking and re-reviewing the day. It's past one in the morning before we both give in and fade into our separate versions of reverie.
Dawn of a New Day
I wake early to the sounds of oceans moving through the walls, Aaron in the next room scrubbing his ass or something, and I walk to the kitchen table and begin paging through a book of Vermeer paintings; then another of Egon Schiele's. I received Schiele's Landscapes as a birthday gift a few weeks ago (an unbelievable revelation after years spent with his angular portraits and human figures), and when the damp boy meanders in we go back and forth on art and talent and how long it can take to sculpt the two into action (Schiele pumping out masterpieces at the age of twenty!) I'm so thankful that it's just the two of us sitting here amidst the stacks of books and Nora-designed furniture, the tango CDs and the art-covered walls, Manhattan chattering and buzzing at us through the windows.
Bird Sighting #5: We load the car and start walking to meet Brent for a farewell breakfast, and there nestled on the sidewalk near a gated drive is a small still vireo. Stunned, obviously, but whole. We stoop down and speak kindly to it, telling it that everything's going to be all right, as long as he can get up somewhere safe. He listens appreciatively. Vireos are forest birds, and hard to find even there, and it's a bit ridiculous to see one sitting here on the sidewalk a block off of Broadway. Probably making a little jaunt from here to there, and then those damned plate glass windows. Aaron moves his hand slowly toward the bird and it flits up to a window ledge, much safer yes, and we move on, considering the necessity of Messenger Birds.
There's exceptional Mexican coffee to be had at the Latino joint where we eat breakfast. We're all delirious and mildly stupid (perhaps I should just speak for myself here?), and I hit the baseball box-scores in The New York Times sports section, thank you very much. What with my entrapment in the tangly ropes and wires of the internet, this is a rare pleasure, and also a kind of plot, as Brent asks, as I had hoped he would, a baseball question: "What teams do you
like?" To which I give my stock reply: "The good ones—I'm mercenary about it, and I'm always very happy." This gives me reason to reach into the bag I'm carrying and pull out a copy of Time Stops, a little baseball book I did with photographer Art Becker a few hundred years ago. He says "thank you." I say "No-no! Thank YOU." It is of course dangerous how deeply appreciation can run, and at times relationships based on generosity just turn into one big endless gift-fest. What misery! I downplay the thing—it's really just a book of glorified photo captions, but there's a few longer prose things there that I'm still very happy I wrote... We drink far too much coffee and then somehow, after saying our goodbyes, Aaron and I end up walking to Starbucks.
When we hit the George Washington Bridge the traffic is sparse, and we begin our journey home, glancing at the haze-enshrouded skyline and making the proper return-trip Quad-Venti-Organic-Latte toast: "Happy Saturday!"
Closing Shop: Notes on the Drive Home
Have I mentioned the Messenger Birds? Bird Sighting #6: No sooner do we come off the bridge and hit New Jersey than a Great Blue Heron appears, solely for my purposes of poetic myth-making, and also to keep me sufficiently confused and out-of-balance when it comes to my refutation of the "belief" thing, and it flaps its enormous wings languidly, gliding down into a low bank of trees. Thank you, thank you so much.
An hour later and there, near the west-bound lanes on the opposite edge of the wide grassy median: a rather large ball, perfectly black in the sun, and as we speed past Aaron I.D.s it as a black bear. We're sorry! Dammit! It's absurd that the major predator in this perversely parceled countryside of ours is the automobile. It seems so undignified. We both share a desire to make things right when we can, and now we're stressing. Should we go back and gently move it off the road? Some dirt-bag will surely stop and chop off its head. Or its paws. Or both, the stupid monkeys! Perhaps we should go do the "laying on of hands" bit—you know—deal with it. As if it matters. Of course at the rate we're moving there's already three or four miles between us and the poor dear thing, and I place a 9-1-1 call and get hooked up to the State Police. "Hello! I'm rolling west with my son on I-80. We've just passed mile marker 243 and there's..." "A black bear that's been hit?" he asks. He tells us that many have called and assures us that someone is on the way. "Many have called..." Why that almost gives us hope.
Another hour or so later and a young woman, auburn hair pulled up and knotted atop her head, is suddenly beside me screaming (I can't hear what she's saying), and giving me the finger. Why? I have no idea. I'm in cruise control, doing 78.4 mph at a machine-steady clip, no one else around, so what have I done? Perhaps it's that I'm in the left-hand lane and she wanted it, but there's no one else close at all so it's a genuine mystery to me. She then speeds ahead and drifts to the left and settles in in front of us.
Problem is, she's doing about 74.7, and so I brake a bit and accept the arrangement without protest. I don't want to make a "thing" out of it, don't want to ruin the smooth ecstatic mood we're in, so I just back off and ignore her. We hold this posture for several minutes, and then I finally feel it's acceptable to make an unimposing and inoffensive move.
Now as I'm going past on the right, I'm purposefully looking at and speaking to Aaron and facing away from whoever she thinks she is, and we're laughing and having a swell old time and he says "OH MY GOD! What's wrong with her?" as we roll by. I refuse to look: "What's she doing?" And he says: "She's so PISSED!"
I really don't feel responsible, so I stay in the right-hand lane, re-set the cruise control at 79.1, and sit back to drive.
Okay, now what follows all happens in like WAY less than three seconds:
First, she goes screaming past us in the left-hand lane, must be doing 90-plus.
Then, as I look left I'm all at once: saying "What The Hell"; passing a clump of bushes in the median; catching out the corner of mine eyes that there is something violent happening behind it; yelling "WHOAAA!" as a huge storm of dirt and sod explodes into the air; registering spinning tires digging mad gulleys in the grass; and realizing that she has been NAILED!
Aaron and I are howling as we watch her slow down and move into the right-hand lane between other vehicles, but their is no hiding out here. The trooper speeds past us, lights flashing, and signals to her to pull over. Aaron is hysterical and yelling at me to "Slow down Pa! Slow down!" and as we catch up to her he flips open his wallet and presses his parole officer badge to the window for her to see. "She'll think we called it in!" and we go sailing down the Interstate in merriment and glee.
Of course we soon decide while discussing the incident that she really wasn't being cited for going 90-plus. She was, in fact, in trouble for not heeding Bill Murray's classic warning: "Don't drive angry!"
The trip back could be plotted as a magnificent alternating wave function: Pensive quiet; agitated conversation; pensive quiet; agitated conversation; pensive...
There was a Conference of the Birds all the way home, last night's trio with Anthony Braxton added on reeds. There was a sunny sky that now and then exploded with sheets of rain, one time coming up so quickly that it scared the hell out of us—like huge pails of water being thrown at the windshield from above. There were mountains in the sun, mountains in the mist and fog. There were small groups of deer coming down the slopes at dusk to graze and hopefully avoid the roadway. There were hours of sweet meaningful talking and good thoughtful companionship. And through it all we'd stop to praise the artistry and kindness and mastery and spirit of Samuel Carthorne Rivers, the day having taken on the feeling of a form of benediction.
Somewhere in East-Central PA, I suddenly had to pee. "Like a race horse," as they say. It's a prostate thing, the growing, and the squeezing, because I'm old, though spiritually I'm just a really bright eight-year-old. I started explaining to Aaron how immediate the need is some days, that the body says to you, sternly and without compromise: "Four minutes from now you will be pissing. In a rest-room; in a parking lot; in your pants, I don't care, it doesn't matter to me." And as I'm telling him this I'm screeching to a halt on an off-ramp and jumping out of the car into the pouring rain.
So I'm standing beside a small tree peeing lustily, cars sizzling by on the wet tarmac, and when I look down I see forest ferns sprouting and lilies-of-the-valley in bloom. Aaron, having jumped out of the car after me has found another, larger tree a short distance away, and I yell: "Native Plants!" Then we're no longer caring about the rain, romping and stomping around in the sodden undergrowth, water rilling down our necks and soaking our clothes, our shoes gathering mud, yanking on fern stalks and nudging delicate lilies out of the swampy ground, laying batches of them up on plastic bags we spread out in the trunk of the car, having an absolute blast, and I tell him I can't wait to get home and tell everyone how wild my week was.
Thank You Please.
The fun is what it's about, yes? I originally and very naively thought I'd arrive home, relax for a while, and then send out a nice tidy e-mail to let everyone know how the concert was. PAH! How silly of me. I became ensnared in THIS, I think, because I don't want to forget any part of it. I would hope that anyone coming in this far has had as much good clean fun reading it as I had putting it down. It's one of the very best 36-hour time spans I've ever had. And for that: Thank you Sam Rivers.
And thank you Monique. Thank you lovely Sandra for telling me that I was going. Thank you Aaron for surprising me and including yourself. Thanks to Steve for vanishing to who-knows-where and to Chacona for not connecting all of my scattered dots, enabling the duet between my son and I to somehow become a large part of what this was about; thank you to Brent and Nora for the strong connect and infinite beneficence; to WKCR and its minions (Jordan Paul, Patrick Jarenwattananon, Drew Pierson...); to Jeffrey Schlanger for sitting me up straight; to Steven Joerg just for breathing the same air; to the little old lady we terrified at Northwest Espresso; to the constant presence of birds everywhere—to the hawks spiraling above and to the crows ("Mr. Crow" the one crow that is all crows manifesting), offering flying lessons to me wherever I go; and to the Herons appearing like clockwork to remind me always that everything will be alright.
And to all of you for caring about what I do.
Love to you all,
Rick Lopez / 2:40 AM, June 1st, 2007
Sam and Beatrice Rivers
from CODA Magazine, Issue #185, August 1982.
Photo by Roberto Masotti.