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Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

By Published: June 16, 2010
AAJ: And your solo multiple piano recordings?

HR: Yes, the other thing I've done with multiple pianos is overdubbing. I first did a record in '75 called Intertwine (Mosaic, 1977), which was for two pianos. And then I did a record in '80 which was a part of the box set Facets, and was called Trisect (Jazzprint, 2001), with three pianos on it. Then I laid off it for a while and got interested again. I have done a record for Martin Davidson's label Emanem, called Two is One. That was in 2005 again with two pianos overdubbed. And in 2007, I did a three piano recording called, you guess it, Three is one—but I promise you I am not going beyond three. I mean, doing three pianos is like doing a three-solo gig. It's a really heavy undertake; it is difficult. But the only thing is when you do this multiple piano thing, the rules are invented for you in terms of reacting. What I was interested in—reacting to my own playing. Finding out about it that way.

There are different ways to set the tape—you've got to make a prime decision. Say we are doing it for two pianos: what you've got to decide for yourself is, "This track is intended to be a lead part." In other words, "Is my second part going to react to the first piano or they are supposed to be an equal opportunities duo?"

All those records—I lay down the first track. Then immediately get that played back and add the second track. For three piano recordings, I then immediately play the third track. What I don't do is go home and think about it, and then come back and play another track. I try to keep it as spontaneous as possible.

It's a difficult way to doing multiple pianos. It represents a lot of problems but it is worth doing because I think you've got to use space a lot, otherwise you will sound like a piano factory. Just bring out different aspects of your playing. I just like the sound of pianos colliding [laughs]. Unique sound but you've got to be really careful—it's a really subtle thing.

I've had an interesting experience with listening. Do you know that old Bill Evans record, "Conversations with Myself (Polygram, 1963)? I originally got it on a mono copy—it's terrible. I don't know who did the recording. It was a really boxy recording but it was only in mono when originally issued. And when I listened to it, it sounded terrible, everything is squeezed together. And then they reissued it on CD and remixed it in stereo. I bought the CD and it was a completely different experience. Suddenly, you could really hear what is going on. It was a revelation. And you could hear things, interaction with Bill Evans that he was making with his own play.

So it is another thing about two, three pianos, you've got to record it very carefully. You've got to get the mix just right, the separation of the instruments just right, otherwise it all coagulates together. But that's more of the technical thing; the engineer has got to be at least as good as you are at playing.

AAJ: The conversation about your life in music won't be complete without your educational work; please talk about teaching.

HR: I don't do a lot but for half a year, running from October to March, every Thursday night I do a piano class at Goldsmith's College in South London. And on Saturday morning, I take a jazz workshop where we rehearse. It's mainly conventional jazz in terms of repertoire. For example, this year it is Thelonious Monk every Saturday morning. Another year, it was Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter

We take a piece each Saturday and I rehearse with two or three bands. It's just to get people familiar with the vocabulary and with playing in a band; some opportunity to play in a band. Because the reality of playing, it is difficult to get space to play together. You've got to pay for it. You've got to find a place with the piano. It's not as easy as you might think.

So I do that. I quite enjoy it but of course it's never a substitute for playing. But I think it is important to do a bit of that for, shall we say, more experienced musicians. Because you can at least pass on some of your insights about it. It's not just a question of saying: "see this is C major. Try if you can get one." Thousands of books now can teach you the theory of music, mechanics of it. More important thing is trying to get people onto the intangible stuff. You know the stuff you only get by playing a lot; you only get with passing of time. So I try to do that. I try to get them also to have a mindset which is quite adventurous as opposed to just playing clichés.

But things are a lot more flexible now then they used to be. It has a lot to do with education—people are more aware at a much younger age. What we were discussing earlier in this interview, about me starting out in the '50s in the North of England, and there was such an absence of information. Even records were like gold those days. I remember one of the first Monk records I've ever bought; I had to actually order that. I'd read about it in a review and thought it really interesting. Then I had to explain this to a shop assistant in a record shop. She had never heard of it and asked, "Give me a piece of paper." I wrote the name and she still couldn't believe—"Let's just order it and see what happens"; and then eventually, three weeks later, it came in. It was like gold. I carried it carefully and thought I mustn't drop it.

But in a funny kind of way when you have to work so hard to get any information you appreciate it a lot more. But now click on the mouse and everything is possible. It got to be some very interesting research to be done on whether hard won information is better or more relevant than obtained easily.

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