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Interviews

Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

By Published: June 16, 2010
AAJ: Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
often appears in your music—what does he mean to you?

HR: Monk has always been there. He is one of the earliest people I've heard playing. I can remember my first reaction sort of perplexity. I thought, "What's going on there? What is he doing?" It really pushed me to find out. It is an interesting reaction because whatever it is—it certainly appeals to me. Probably first I heard him in 1955 or '56 and he was so different from everything else around. I immediately got interested. I mean I've always been like that—tried to explore those little nooks and crannies which have always been the most interesting bits of music. Monk was definitely a nook and a cranny in 1956. I started buying a couple of his records and listening to them.

I just like the feel of it, the touch, the percussiveness and I like the harmony as well—the way he has a slightly different touch but you can always tell where it was coming from. You can always hear the basis of it, which is in conventional jazz but he was twisting the harmony, putting in minor ninth notes. And I've always liked his playing. I like his pieces as well. As you probably know, I've done those recordings of Monk and Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
. I tend to think of them as together in many ways.

But again with Monk it's like with all great players the trick is not to be influenced right to the point when your own individuality vanishes. Because it is so idiosyncratic what he does. I could do a very good imitation of Monk but that wouldn't be the point. In fact, in a way that would mean rejecting his philosophy because his philosophy was "go for your individuality." And he is probably the outstanding example in his generation; somebody who was totally different from everybody else. He just went for his own thing. That got across of me as well as the purely musical aspects of it.

AAJ: You have covered your early years in music. What happened next? How did your career develop?

HR: In the broadest of terms what happens as the time passes in each period, you tend to look for the people to play with; people who most correspond with where you are in your own personal development. And over the years I've played with different groups of people. The ideal for me is to find a balance between solo and group playing.

The last two or three years, I've been concentrating on playing solo, recording solo and doing solo gigs. The reason being my vocabulary has broadened out a lot. I am trying to get to the point when I can use all my musical experiences from the past over the last 40 years and make them relevant to what I am doing at the moment. It's quite an ambitious undertaking because most people tend to concentrate on one area of jazz and that's it. But I want to combine.

For example, in solo playing some of the stuff is based on changes, some of it isn't, some of it is totally free, some of it is based on a theme or a song but these are all different things going on there. And there isn't one approach. It is easier to do that playing solo. When you are playing in a group it tends to settle into a certain area of play. It was one of the problems when playing free music. And if you want to play changes you have to find another band. So that is one of the problems of playing with other people.

I have been in groups over the years that managed to cover everything. A good band for that was the band that I had with Elton Dean
Elton Dean
Elton Dean
1945 - 2006
saxophone
in late '80s-early '90s, with Paul Rogers on bass and Mark Sanders
Mark Sanders
Mark Sanders
b.1960
on drums. That was a band! When we did a gig, we covered everything. We did a set which consisted, some of it was free improvisation and some of it with changes, some of it our own compositions. You knew there were different things and we did it seamlessly. We knew the stuff well enough and didn't have to worry about stopping and starting. We just had a way from one thing to another by listening to it. With that band, the players were good enough to do that.

The problem is usually you find some people who are very good at changes but terrible at free playing. Alternatively, some of them are very good at free playing but when asked to play changes they can't do that. With that band, people were very good at everything and it was unusual. Playing solo, you can alter the direction just like that. You can chose the direction you want to do. So this is really why I've been concentrating on playing solo for the last few years: it gives me that possibility of bringing all my past experiences for making it relevant at the moment. And as for the future, you never know. You've just got to keep following your notes, really.

AAJ: Can you talk about your piano duos?

I have two main piano duos, one of them is still ongoing— although we haven't worked together for quite a while. But it's with Keith Tippet, we've been playing together as a duo since early '80s. And with Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
1922 - 1999
piano
, the American. Jaki died in 1999, bizarre death. Of course, these two were very different things.



With Jaki, because of his history—he played with everybody in America: with Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
reeds
, Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
, he played with a lot, it was an ideal opportunity to play with an absolute master. Doing that I could learn a lot; I let that go in his direction. The recording we did after just a couple of months staying together playing duo. It was dealing with tunes mostly and a little bit of free playing mixed in with it.

Jaki is a very underrated pianist in my opinion. And he also was an unusual case at that period in America. He did listen to everything and he was aware of what was going on in Europe. He wasn't just locked into America. A lot of Americans, I find a bit xenophobic. They think that all begins and ends in America without having heard of anything else. Jaki wasn't like that, he was interested and he heard a lot of stuff.

Then with Keith, where we've totally known each other's playing for years, I mean before we started playing we were aware of each other from the late-sixties. We started to get together from the early '80s. So we already were aware of what each other did. We just literally sat down; we never discussed the music. That's the one rule—"don't discuss it, just sit down and play." When you are hearing us playing, it's totally open. There's no prime discussion, except for some prime knowledge because we've heard each other for years.

In fact, we are from quite different time periods—Keith is slightly younger than me. His starting point is probably modal music, McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
b.1938
piano
. My starting point is about five or six years older than him; it is bebop, that era. It is interesting because when we play solo, you'd immediately be able to tell the difference. When we are playing together, the whole passages, you can't actually pick out who is playing what. We merge and then we come apart again. It is really interesting side issue.

So that's the two duos I've got. The one with Jaki is more conventional vocabulary if you like, the one with Keith is totally open, totally free.


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