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Howard Riley and Keith Tippett at Pizza Express

Duncan Heining By

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Howard Riley and Keith Tippett
Pizza Express
London
March 9, 2015

It's been a while since two of the world's great improvising pianists played together—twenty-two years to be precise. This fact alone may have brought a goodly and appreciative turn-out to Soho's Pizza Express Jazz Club. If so, Howard Riley and Keith Tippett met all their expectations. delivering a three fine sets—alone and finally together.

Tippett opened the event—hints of blues from his powerful, percussive left hand contrasting with upper register triplets from his right. Two reasons why these two pianists—with such different styles—work so well together. Firstly, both possess a strong, dynamic left hand rooted in blues and jazz. Secondly, each has a distinctive, even quirky melodic sense. The rest is contrast.

It soon became clear that Tippett, consciously or not, was treating us to an entire history of twentieth century piano. Not just jazz, either. The blues slid into a ballad and the AABA song-form with a quote from something that still nags at the memory bank. It was brief, a snatch only, and then something Messiaen-like shifting next in the direction of Debussy. Now a reference to stride piano before a series of rapid, off-kilter arpeggios à la Cecil Taylor. At one point, it sounded as if Tippett was accompanying some silent film playing in his head. And there was John Cage in the prepared piano, perhaps. A recurring motif finished the set, a reminder that Tippett's fine new CD, Mujician Solo IV—Live in Piacenza, was just one night's music.

Riley's solo work is, perhaps, more obviously 'jazz' in its focus. As evidenced by his most recent recordings, To Be Continued... and 10.11.12, Riley is a story-teller and his medium a song-form extended far beyond sixteen or thirty-two bars. If Tippett builds from the foundations upwards, the sense with Riley is more forensic. He works from the outside of each idea, exploring ever deeper, peeling back layer after layer, drawing out every possible nuance of his songs. Inevitably, there are blues to be revealed in all their primal glory and Ellington and Monk, too. But all has been absorbed. He closes with "Round Midnight," a performance so beautifully weighted and measured to make grown men cry into their Peroni.

Keith Tippett opens their duo with a ragtime-time like syncopation, before setting up a mighty, percussive rhythm behind Howard Riley's more lyrical, melodic adventures. Things switch to those township riffs that Tippett so loves. Not for the first time, I am struck by the parallel between these rhythms and Trinidadian calypso. With the two pianos, the music builds layer upon layer. Perhaps it returns jazz to polyrhythms and its true rhythmic modes when not forced into a four-to-the bar straightjacket. A cascade of mordants and trills follow, as they lead us into a near waltz in 6/8 with more than a hint of McCoy Tyner. Stabbing left-hand chords take us into a ballad, from which "Misterioso" emerges and they finish to an ovation with most of the audience on the feet.

"I had to go into our encore at the end," Tippett told me after the gig, grinning all over his face. "Otherwise, we could've gone on all night!"

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