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Interviews

Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

By Published: June 16, 2010
AAJ: What is your opinion of non-idiomatic improvisation, as proposed by Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
1932 - 2005
guitar
?

HR: Well, I've never fully understood what "non-idiomatic improvisation" was. The reason I say that because with Derek—particularly with Derek—you just hear the guy play one chord and you think "Derek Bailey." There can't be any doubt about it. I am saying that as a privilege to him; I admire that in a musician when he is so distinctive. I am sure he had his own idiom, didn't he? We talk about non-idiomatic playing but he was one of the most idiomatic players I've ever heard, only it was his own idiom.

I remember this argument— it was around in the '70s. There were very intense discussions on whether it is possible to play non-idiomatically but you see, the thing is with free music in the '70s. Now we listen to it and it sounds quite idiomatic. I can't see how you can do non-idiomatically because the moment you start playing these all sorts of things go into that—memory, habit, accumulated knowledge, things like that. There's no such thing like innocent music, everything is deliberate, everything is thought through even if it is improvising because the more you play the more knowledge you tend to accumulate—even if on an unconscious level. I am an idiomatic player, hopefully. I think it is a good thing to be because that's how we should be able to develop an individual sound, an individual approach. Derek, ironically I think, he was one of the most idiomatic improvisers I've ever heard except that it is his own idiom. He was fantastic and got his own thing together.

AAJ: But he played in many groups. Does it mean that his personal idiom still could be shared by other players?

HR: Derek's thing was just doing his thing. Then it was really up to the people who played with him to find a way into that. Sometimes it worked better than other times, but it's kind of difficult, that one. When you are talking about playing with anybody there are different ways to doing that. You can meet somebody half way, or you can just say—this is what I do and it's up to you how you fit in. Derek's was the last approach. He knew what he did, so if you accepted to play with him you would do it on his terms. But you can still fit in. I've heard a little bit of Derek, people played tunes behind him but Derek was still plunking away [laughs].

So there you go: so somebody who is so good at free playing, who's got such a distinctive vocabulary they are not going to play changes anyway because it wouldn't work. When they meet other musicians it's always going to be on their terms. You are never going to say "let's meet in the middle. We'll play some changes." It's not going to work like that. There are some musicians—hopefully, I am amongst them—who when you listen to them, you are not aware what techniques they are using. You are just aware that they have their own sound, their own vocabulary. Paul Bley
Paul Bley
Paul Bley
b.1932
piano
is a good example of that. When you are hearing him playing the piano you don't think, "Oh, he is playing a tune now; oh, he is playing free now." You just think "Oh, this is Paul Bley" because when he is playing a tune, he still sounds free. When he is playing free, it sounds like he's playing a tune. It's a sort of seamlessness to it and a very advanced playing to that because he can go from one thing to another and the audience hardly notices that. That's very subtle, it takes a lot of work. It's probably a slightly too sophisticated concept for the current society we are living in. But that's another question, isn't it?

Anyway, back to your question, I am not a believer in non-idiomatic improvisation. I don't really understand what it is. Listening to people I just got my ear. When I hear Derek I just think a fantastic individual player; idiomatic, but it his own idiom. That's the difference. There are other people they got a generalized idiom. But Derek is totally individual.

AAJ: What can you say about the future of music. Is it in hands of young musicians?

HR: It's a massive question. Generally speaking some of them demonstrate amazing technical achievements. It's got to do with education opportunities; 18 year-olds—they've got phenomenal technique. It makes me feel ashamed really when I listen to it sometimes.



But of course, that's only a "half-in a question," isn't it? The other "half in a question" is the more intangible aspects of music. Why are you doing it? And there's no definitive answer to all that. I think from a musician's point of view you've got to realize that separation. I find it in my own bit of teaching. I often ask my students why you are doing this. Why? I don't know, they often don't really understand why. It's not a burning desire.

When I look back at the '50s—I had to play. When I heard Monk and Charlie Parker, I thought, "I've got to be a part of that. This is what I want to do." But today a lot of people don't have particularly that burning desire. I think it's a part of modern society now. There's so much other stuff going on. So many distractions.

Like in football—kids now would rather play a computer. If they play football, they want to play for a thousand pounds a kick. Ridiculous! So I think it's a more general problem in the society. Information is so easily available on a very superficial level. It doesn't always leave a lot of intention for people to actually put in a lot of time and dedication, of burning desire to doing it. But having said that, technically, some amazing stuff is going on. We all know in jazz specifically is being revival—I am not in favor of that. I think that going inside (something) and trying to recreate its past is a dead end, actually.

Things move so quickly now that all you can do as a musician is just find the areas you can be interested in working with; try to develop some of those in depth. It's a difficult thing to do because there always going to be passing fashions.

I do worry a bit because people's attention now is so minor compare to what it used to be. I don't know if there's many people left who are prepared to sit down and really listen to music as opposed to the '70s. If you are talking about the dedicated listener, it's now kind of tricky. There was a problem of finding music, creative music. That has always been a problem but in a way I think more of a problem that came up with so-called free market. Of course, it crushed but in the last 30 years it was the only way forward. That just means that the more commercial stuff will be heard and the more creative stuff won't be heard. So, I do worry a bit just in terms of people being aware of the alternative, which seems to be a problem today. Although there will always be very dedicated people, working on their own thing. There will always be people going along with it and creating environment for it.

We are obviously in a much more technological age now with the Internet, mobile phones, etc., but the basic problem unfortunately remains the same. I can't predict in terms where goes music. Who knows? But at least I know what I'd like to do.

Selected Discography

Howard Riley, Solo In Vilnius (No Business Records, 2010)

Howard Riley, For Four on Two Two (Phantom Sound and Vision, 2008)

Howard Riley, Consequences (33 Jazz, 2006)

Howard Riley/Roger Eno, (Heliopause, 2005)

Howard Riley, Two is One (Emanem, 2005)

Howard Riley, Air Play (Slam, 2003)

Howard Riley, John Tilbury and Keith Tippett, Another Part of the Story (Emanem, 2002)

Howard Riley Trio, Synopsis (Emanem, 2001)

Howard Riley, Singleness (Jazzprint, 2001)

Howard Riley/Lol Coxhill/George Haslam/Paul Rutherford, The Holywell Concert (Slam Productions, 1990)

Howard Riley/Jaki Byard, Live at the Royal Festival Hall (Leo Records, 1984)

Howard Riley, Duality (JazzPrint, 1981)

Howard Riley/Barry Guy/John Stevens/Trevor Watts, Endgame (Japo Records, 1979)

Howard Riley, Flight (Turtle Records, 1971)

Howard Riley Trio, Angle (CBS Realm, 1969)

Howard Riley Trio, Discussions (Opportunity, 1967)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 3-5: No Business Records

Page 2: Richard Kaby

Page 7: Sean Kelly.


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