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Interviews

Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

By Published: June 16, 2010
AAJ: You have just outlined a map of jazz London back in the '60s— persons, cliques, places. Please add a few words about interactions between people from different camps.

HR: Well, I think historically most of interactions we've been talking about was really during the '60s. When it came to the '70s things settled down a bit. And that's when it became apparent what those schools were. It wasn't as apparent at the time. Back in '60s, the attitude was like: "John is a good guitarist, why don't we play something together?" Because people were just starting out; nobody knew who else was around. We just stumbled across each other. By the '70s, people started to gain reputation, so you knew who did what in your generation. That was then these camps really solidify. In my memory, there wasn't as much interactions in the '70s.

But the '60s were a high water mark in Britain. That generation was incredibly talented. If you think of the people who emerged in that period—they all still play better than anybody. All the names I've mentioned with the exceptions, of course, of those who passed away. That is beginning to happen now but everybody else is still playing stronger than ever.

But when it comes to '70s, there were people of a bit more known qualities. You knew what people did and you naturally gravitated towards the people who were more sympathetic with your view point. By the '70s, you've got your own view point. You've developed your own formula. While in the '60s, people were still finding out what they wanted to play. I was—I started out playing conventional jazz, then I realized I couldn't go on just imitating known patterns. When I started playing with much freer form. That was a combination of things including just pianistically using both hands more in highs and lows of the keyboard as well as the middle; getting away from that texture, just playing lines with the right hand and cords with the left—using both hands, things like that—defining my style. But style is continually fluid anyway. And that's a value of making records. You can hear, over the years, the way things have been changing. Recording is good for that because if you didn't record there are no evidences that you did anything [laughs].

AAJ: You've mentioned that European problem. Have you solved it? Have players of your generation succeeded in creation of not only their own individual styles but also some sort of European identity on more general level?

HR: We didn't think about it in such a formal way really. It's just a realization. I remember thinking it's amazing that nobody played like that before. You see, that's difficult now to comprehend but up to the mid-sixties in most of Europe, I think nobody actually thought about making rivals of Americans. The game was how well you could imitate Americans. You could still add a little something. The best players of that era in Britain, bebop players if you like were imitating but they added something their own to it as well. I am thinking of people like Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey
Stan Tracey
Stan Tracey
1926 - 2013
piano
—they would be two examples of fantastic players. Stan of course still is a fantastic player but he and Tony and people like that— they are obviously based on American music although they added their own little things to it. I think we were at that time a little bit further than that.

But there wasn't a sort of manifesto—we didn't sit down one afternoon in December 1968 to write our manifesto of new European school. I mean it would be very romantic to think it happened like that. It was a much more natural, organic development. As the time passes you begin to see patterns and shapes, the realization comes. But you never see it at the time because at the time you were just doing a gig, you were playing.


AAJ: Please talk about your experience with classical and modern contemporary music. How these experiences affected your playing?

HR: With music you always tend to gravitate towards the sound that attracts you ear. It's an obvious point—it's an emotional reaction, isn't it? When you first hear something you don't try to analyze it; it just hits you, it's an emotional thing. Some of the contemporary music in the '60s—I really liked the sound of it. I was also exposed to it. As I've already mentioned when I was at Bangor as a student there were two contemporary composers Bernard Rands and Reginald Smith Brindle to expose me to a lot of that kind of music.

And then when I came to London, of course, Barry [Guy] was very interested. Barry is in many ways connected with the contemporary classical music at least as much as with jazz. His case is special; you can't separate the two out because one influences the other.

And given that I've always believed that you've got to let yourself be influenced, you've got to keep as broad in approach as possible and that was the sound that attracted me. So I wanted to build that into my playing. But I think with my play the rhythmic side is very important. Whatever I play, you can tell where I am coming from; my jazz roots always show up. But the actual cording, harmony, some of that modulates more from classical music and not as much from conventional jazz.

Don't forget with jazz even in more conventional forms it has always been influenced by classical music. If you listen to Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
there's a fantastic influence of 19th Century classical music in his art. Jazz has always been an amalgamation of different music traditions and classical music has always been there in the mix. Of course, the situation has got more and more complicated during the last 40 years because all sorts of other musical forms have influenced jazz. And jazz is good with that because it can absorb all that and still keep its own identity. That's one of the attractions of this flexible music form—it's not sealed off. That just happened to be the thing that influenced my playing quality. But I don't over emphasize that because as long as those things happen organically, naturally, it is fine.


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