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Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

Maxim Micheliov By

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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.

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