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Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music


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Howard Riley gave his performance in Vilnius, Lithuania in September, 2009. It was his first visit to the country in a five-decade career, and one of just a few eastern Europe destinations made at the time, by the British free jazz pianist. The concert was recorded and released in 2010 as the double-disc set, Solo in Vilnius, by No Business Records.

All About Jazz: Describe your musical background.

Howard Riley: I was born in 1943 in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. But for the first 6 years I lived down in Harrow, which is a place very near London. Then my parents moved back to the north so most of my childhood was spent there.

I started playing the piano at the age of six in 1949. My father was a semi-professional dance band player. He played in a local band but he was an engineer, professionally. He gave me the first piano lessons. He got an instruction book with children notes there. He gave me my basics, so that was a start.

AAJ: At what point did you start to be interested in jazz?

HR: I started being interested in jazz in mid-'50s in terms of listening to it. I was about11 or 12 then, and what I heard was people like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie—the bebop school. That caught my ear. I remember thinking—"this is fantastic music. How do they play it?" Because in that era in mid-'50s, there were no instruction books. Now it is different, of course. You've got jazz education, books, tuition records—everything but then there was nothing like that. It was up in the north of England. So what you did was listen to records with few other people interested in playing. I just got together with the local guys. We used to listen to records and tried to reproduce them.

But the other thing I was still at school when started playing in public. I was always playing with people at least ten years older than me. But I used to get gigs because I was the only person in that area who could play that. And I used to play three nights a week, a regular gig, that was really good. Anyway, playing with local musicians was my first experience.

And then in 1961, I went to Bangor University in North Wales. I originally went to do English Literature. But when I got there, they had a quite active music department—active in contemporary music with a couple of composers called Bernard Rands and Reginald Smith Brindle. They happened to be teaching there and I thought this is an opportunity to learn more about music, broaden up my horizons a bit, and I switched at the end of my first year from English to music. That's how I ended up doing a degree in music.

For the next five years, I was a student at Bangor University but every summer I used to take playing jobs because I had to earn some money. I used to play at a holiday camp in 1962, then I played on the boat from the European Line going around the Mediterranean playing in a band and all these jobs were to earn money. And one thing I realized from doing that was that I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life [laughs], because it was pretty boring. But it was an insight into what that kind of music all about.

So I used to play commercial music during the summers to earn some money and study music during the winters on that period 1961-66. I was still playing jazz at the university. I had my own little trio. In fact, during that period I first met Evan Parker because he was also at the university. And we linked up together and had a quartet. That was in 1965, up in Birmingham in the middle part of England.

And then in 1966 I left Bangor; I had a year at the Indiana University in the States. I did a master music degree. There was a trombone player called David Baker. He played on some of George Russell's recordings from the early '60s. He was just starting a jazz course at Indiana University so I was lucky to catch it from the beginning. I played in his band, did a little studying.

I came back in 1967 to London. That was when I started living in London.

AAJ: When did you realize that you have this passion for experimenting, searching for new forms, developing own language?

HR: It was a gradual realization really, because when I was at Bangor I was quite happy just to learn a basic vocabulary of jazz. I still tried to master that and my heroes where people like Gillespie. I felt happy playing conventional jazz but when I came to London in 1967... when I passed through London in '66 on the way to America. I stayed up in London a couple of weeks just to check out the scene. I met a lot of people I'd liked to play with. I met Barry Guy, Tony Oxley—at that time a resident drummer at Ronnie Scott's club. I met a lot of musicians. So when I came back to London, I formed a trio.

It is difficult to think now but that period in the '60s it was in the air—this experimentation. I don't really like this word "experimentation." It's just an attitude that was pushing me forward to doing something a bit different because the basic problem which everybody had in England, and also in Europe is the "American problem": the fact that you are not American. And that, never the less, American musicians that I have mentioned were my starting point. So the thing is how can you develop your own voice within this new thing—this is the problem to get your own individuality. I think that was the basic impulse behind it. That generation of musicians in the '60s realized that just imitating Americans wasn't enough.

Up to that point in England, if you imitated Americans well that was considered to be enough. You didn't go any further than that. I think my generation realized—"well, you've got to do something acknowledging that we are a starting point"; we've got to get to the point when we were producing something distinctively European if you like. And I think that was the root of your question really.

The music just evolved. When it evolves you don't sit down and think it through in advance. It evolves by playing. Everything what happened in that period—people were just playing together. Also it was a very good period for different people trying to invent together. There was good atmosphere in the '60s in London.

For example, I played with John McLaughlin quite a bit at that time. He became very famous and a worldwide star, but then we played together little gigs around London. I used to have him to my trio before he became famous and too expensive for me. And occasionally I did a duo gig with him. Things hadn't solidified at that point. There was lots of interchange and there were people who were playing free music conversed with people who played conventional jazz. I mean myself—that was my roots in jazz, playing bebop if you like, that was where I started out from. And then freer forms only came out of the result of this mindset of thinking that we were Europeans and just keep evolving.

But at that time people interacting was very intense. I suppose it was also the fact that a lot of people now have obtained reputation but they haven't got it at that point. John McLaughlin, nobody heard of him. I remember that time he was out of work. He was a great guitarist but it was difficult getting hold of him even. So before everybody entered an invented "hall of fame," there was a lot of interaction.

All that little things were going on and it wasn't about money. It was really about that "let's see what happen if we try something." Obviously in music as in anything else "what happens" is affected by the society around you generally. The atmosphere in the '60s was very adventurous in a lot of aspects. It's amazing. These days we are so used to consumerism and everything being presented in a slick way, but it wasn't like that then.

So coming back to your question, I didn't set out to do anything deliberate. I just liked the things that evolved. The trick with that is to try let it evolve and not be affected by other considerations. The moment you start thinking "will I get work with it?"—usually that means you start compromising the music itself. So it is a tricky thing to do but that was basically my attitude anyway.

AAJ: Please describe the scene in more detail.

HR: Do you mean in London? I mean, you see, in Britain, in England particularly that time, if you had any ambitions in terms of developing your play you had to really go to London. There weren't too many players out in the country. This was my problem because then I was a kid in Huddersfield I've done everything you want to do. By the age of 14, I was playing with guys who were in their thirties. Local musicians but I could see that I had to get out of there in order to develop.

And, of course, the university thing it was a different set of circumstances because I had to earn some money during the summer which meant doing some commercial music. But that was valuable—it taught me never to do that, never even think of doing that as a life time occupation.

There were different little cliques although there was interaction. A little theater club was one point of reference to all of that, that was for developing free music up there. People like John Stevens, Evan (Parker) played there. Barry (Guy), of course. That's how I first met Barry. He did a lot of the Little Theatre club. And that was for free playing. John Stevens was a central focus there. He was undoubtedly a catalyst. And Trevor Watts was very important with that. They used to work there six nights a week often not getting paid. They were incredibly dedicated. The club didn't start until 10:30 at night because there was that Little Theater happening earlier. The only problem from my point of view was that the piano was lousy. That piano was really bad but suppose you learn something from that—how to master bad piano playing.

Then there was Ronnie Scott's old place, which was left over from Ronnie's moving to bigger premises on Frith Street. And they lasted for a year-and-a-half at the least, and it was very generous because he didn't have to do this. He just gave it over to the younger guys to present themselves in this club. That was my first place where I've started getting known a bit.

And the people whom we know today were just starting out. I've mentioned John and Trevor, Evan and Barry. Tony Oxley was a resident drummer at Ronnie Scott's but he was also quite important in free music, but again, he liked conventional playing and regular gigs and also free music. Derek Bailey of course—all these people started out that time. And then John Surman emerged and he was playing with Mike Westbrook. I am going to miss people out there. That's just for example.

Yes and Keith Tippett, he emerged slightly later than the rest, in about '69, but that's important. And South Africans: Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza—they were very important because they injected something totally different into the London scene. Reverting to my earlier words, that was another little camp. Never the less, people did interact a lot. We did gigs together, there wasn't segregation.

The thing we all had in common—we were all starting out in our early to mid-twenties, that age group. And the attitude was as I said earlier: "let's try and see what happens if we do this or that..."; to get unusual combination in that area. It was a very active thing.

The problem was in terms of exposure. In that period, the last half of the '60s, there was a very active rock scene. Because in Britain there was the emergence of... I am going to give them more publicity but I have to say this—The Beatles, the The Rolling Stones, The Who. Bands like that were emerging and they were quickly becoming international superstars. And all the music magazines and the music press were writing these guys up.

AAJ: Did you have interaction with the musicians of older generation?

HR: Not as much. You get this of course every time when the new generation comes up. I have to resist that myself. When you get older you think—who are these guys who are just started out? You can expect a bit of resistance. I would say it's a natural thing. But, for example, I've already mentioned Ronnie Scott. He left his old place over to young musicians; it was charity, almost. He didn't have to do that. So he was interested. I think Ronnie and people like that realized that something is going on. But obviously they were entrenched of their way of things. And of course there were some great players in their generation. Like, for example, Tubby Hayes. Who, in terms of playing bebop, was a fantastic saxophonist. So there wasn't all sweetness in life but I think that happens each time a new generation comes up. At this very moment as we speak maybe there's a 17 year-old genius somewhere out there. We haven't heard of him yet.

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—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.

Similarly when you make a record you never know what it is going to be like in the long run in terms of its value. When you play often you think, "I don't know about that gig; it wasn't really as good as it should have been." And if you have it recorded, you feel not entirely happy with that. But I've learned that if you hold fire and let it settle often when you come back later you discover that it was a good recording actually. I mean obviously if it was a disaster you know that, but we are talking about the sort of in between bit. So my attitude has always been just hold fire, let the things settle because it is surprising how often things do change in your head about the value of the thing. And that is the point of recording to document that particular period in time and development. I can hear it now when I very occasionally listen to my own recordings; it has to pass about twenty-to-thirty years, because until I reach that stage I can't hear it as a listener. I am too involved with it, so after twenty or thirty years, I can listen to my records as a listener.

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 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.

AAJ: Thelonious Monk 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. 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 in late '80s-early '90s, with Paul Rogers on bass and Mark Sanders 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, 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, Charles Mingus, 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. 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.

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.

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.

AAJ: What is your opinion of non-idiomatic improvisation, as proposed by Derek Bailey?

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.

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