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Sam Rivers Leads Strong Topeka Jazz Lineup

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The little jazz festival that could continues to grow and evolve in surprising ways.

The three-day Coleman Hawkins Legacy Jazz Festival, just a couple of gallons of gas away in Topeka, has a new location and an even stronger lineup this year.

It's a far cry from its scraggly but spirited beginnings, but the music-loving and noncommercial spirit that got it all started is still in place. And so is the original admission price: It's free, but donations are encouraged.

There's the usual complement of the region's best talent, plus an impressive roster of world-class artists, including Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, the Brazilian husband-and-wife team who make amazing voice-and-percussion magic; the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a surprising New Orleans band that gave that city's musical tradition a shot in the arm in the 1980s and is still helping to energize the place; and Garaj Mahal, a hot jamming band that fuses jazz and world music with great virtuosity.

Even with all that, the eye-opener for some jazz fans is the inclusion of Sam Rivers, tenor sax man and composer who's been a leading light on the exploratory side of jazz since the 1950s. He and his quartet will be onstage Saturday.

Rivers has long advanced the causes of harmonic and rhythmic freedom in jazz, but the music he has made has so much purpose, so much dramatic focus, that even jazz neophytes are won over.

“I play quite a few ideas," he says on the phone from his Florida studio, “but I also play with a certain emotion. Sometimes a rock kind of emotion, sometimes a blues emotion. And it gets over to people. It's not how much ideas you have -- it's how you feel about the music."

Rivers, now 84, comments on a part of his background that gets overlooked: “I came up playing the blues. That's a different discipline from bebop, and different from the avant-garde." His first big-league job was backing blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, he says. He was on one of Billie Holiday's last tours. And he was with T-Bone Walker when Miles Davis lured him away.

Rivers, reared in Little Rock and Chicago, went to Boston to study music in the late 1940s and became one of those local legends.

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