SAM RIVERS with NOJO at the Markham Jazz Festival, Saturday (August 18), free. 905-471-5299; and later at Top o' the Senator (253 Victoria), Saturday and Sunday (August 18 and 19). $10. 416-364-7517. Rating: NNNNN
he might be 77 years old and livein the retirement scene of Orlando, Florida, but Sam Rivers remains one of the most explosive and relentlessly creative forces in jazz today.While Armani-wearing horn players a third his age have made a killing living in jazz's past, the hard-blowing Rivers has refused to either look back or slow down.
There's plenty of past for Rivers to dwell on if he wanted to. The saxophonist has played with most of the major figures in jazz, everyone from Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Andrew Hill to Cecil Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard.
He hosted the epochal New York loft jazz scene of the 1970s in his front room, also known as Studio RivBea, and remains a firebrand individualist long after many of his free contemporaries went straight.
He refuses to play cute with the jazz establishment, instead releasing his own records on his RivBea Sounds imprint and jetting around the country to jam with exciting young musicians like Toronto's NOJO. Rivers joins the massive jazz orchestra at the Markham Jazz Festival and the Top o' the Senator this week.
Not exactly the relaxed pace of someone thinking about retiring gracefully.
"I still feel very creative and inspired," Rivers exclaims from Palo Alto, California. "I write every day. This music just keeps coming into my head, and I feel like I have to get it down on paper and preserve it.
"I'm nowhere near burnt out. Burnout means that you've exhausted all possibilities. I can still see an entire universe ahead of me. I feel like I'm just getting started. This new trio I have is something that's never been heard in jazz before. We each play three different instruments and keep switching throughout the set, exploring every possible combination. That's the kind of stuff that gets me excited."
Even with a catalogue of classic Blue Note albums behind him, Rivers also isn't particularly interested in winding out his career running through old standards. The saxophonist has a filing cabinet full of compositions and another library of sketches waiting to be fleshed out, and is decidedly of the opinion that newer is better.
It's a reflection of his own past policy of never playing anything that had already been recorded, believing that there wasn't time to dwell on the past.
"I keep writing enough material that I don't have to look back," Rivers chuckles. "I think anyone who has to go back and dwell on the past is just not being aggressive enough.
"A lot of musicians get satisfied with where they are. I'm happy with what I've done, but I also want to keep creating. I yank out something new every night."
For all his looking forward, though, Rivers admits that he's a product of who he's played with over the years.
His four-year stint as Dizzy Gillespie's sparring partner took him to stages around the world, and a brief spot in Miles Davis's legendary quintet in 1964 put him amongst the jazz elite, but it was his tenure with the Cecil Taylor Unit that truly opened Rivers up to the possibilities of playing free.
"Playing with Cecil was the most opening experience you could imagine," Rivers offers. "It was as free as possible but also really strict, which is how my music ended up developing.
"That was the pattern for a lot of the musicians I played with. Miles was strict and also really into exploring, and Dizzy was even more split between the two. He would play around, but in a really precise way, and if I made a mistake he'd talk about it all night to the crowd.
"It keeps you on your toes but also forces you to think fast and be creative. That's really what jazz, free and straight, is all about."