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Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

Maxim Micheliov By

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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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