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Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

Maxim Micheliov By

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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.

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