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Howard Riley: Five Decades in Music

Maxim Micheliov By

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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.

AAJ: But he played in many groups. Does it mean that his personal idiom still could be shared by other players?

HR: Derek's thing was just doing his thing. Then it was really up to the people who played with him to find a way into that. Sometimes it worked better than other times, but it's kind of difficult, that one. When you are talking about playing with anybody there are different ways to doing that. You can meet somebody half way, or you can just say—this is what I do and it's up to you how you fit in. Derek's was the last approach. He knew what he did, so if you accepted to play with him you would do it on his terms. But you can still fit in. I've heard a little bit of Derek, people played tunes behind him but Derek was still plunking away [laughs].

So there you go: so somebody who is so good at free playing, who's got such a distinctive vocabulary they are not going to play changes anyway because it wouldn't work. When they meet other musicians it's always going to be on their terms. You are never going to say "let's meet in the middle. We'll play some changes." It's not going to work like that. There are some musicians—hopefully, I am amongst them—who when you listen to them, you are not aware what techniques they are using. You are just aware that they have their own sound, their own vocabulary. Paul Bley is a good example of that. When you are hearing him playing the piano you don't think, "Oh, he is playing a tune now; oh, he is playing free now." You just think "Oh, this is Paul Bley" because when he is playing a tune, he still sounds free. When he is playing free, it sounds like he's playing a tune. It's a sort of seamlessness to it and a very advanced playing to that because he can go from one thing to another and the audience hardly notices that. That's very subtle, it takes a lot of work. It's probably a slightly too sophisticated concept for the current society we are living in. But that's another question, isn't it?

Anyway, back to your question, I am not a believer in non-idiomatic improvisation. I don't really understand what it is. Listening to people I just got my ear. When I hear Derek I just think a fantastic individual player; idiomatic, but it his own idiom. That's the difference. There are other people they got a generalized idiom. But Derek is totally individual.

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