Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

Maxim Micheliov By

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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.
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