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Howard Riley: Reinventing the Jazz Piano Trio

Duncan Heining By

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Even allowing for journalistic hyperbole, the phrase "reinventing the jazz piano trio" was a doozy. It all seemed a bit "Emperor's new clothes" or, as my late mother used to put it, "new coat and no knickers." For a time in the noughties, British critics variously applied the phrase to Esbjorn Svensson, Brad Mehldau, The Necks, The Bad Plus, Michael Wollny, Vijay Iyer and even Neil Cowley. One wondered what these writers knew of Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Don Pullen or of Howard Riley, our subject here.

Riley made a series of albums in the late sixties and early seventies that took the Bill Evans/Scott LaFaro/Paul Motian template and added to it the new sensibilities made possible by free jazz. What is more he did it on a small island thousands of miles from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or LA. Bassist Barry Guy was a constant through these recordings, which began with Discussions in 1968 with Jon Hiseman on drums, before Alan Richard Jackson took over for Angle (1969) and The Day Will Come (1970). When Tony Oxley replaced Jackson for Flight (1971) and Synopsis (1973), he and Guy added electronics to the trio's already formidable sonic palette. As the Bible notes, "and there is no new thing under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

These three releases offer an opportunity to hear how Riley's art developed from its very confident beginnings in 1960, aged seventeen, to its early maturity. Riley himself sees his development as an evolutionary process, where change is a constant but where part of any discovery can be retained or, if discarded, be recovered later. Arguably, it's a process that better describes jazz than one characterized primarily by periodic revolutions or reinventions.

The Dusk Fire reissue of Discussions improves on the previous Jazzprint release in several respects. Piano and bass have gained greatly from remastering, though this has also increased the prominence of the drums in the mix, not always to best effect. However, remastering has made evident how far Riley and his colleagues were extending the harmonic potential of the piano trio. One senses here, as with Evans/LaFaro/Motian, a trio of equals rather than just piano and rhythm and a music in a state of constant evolution. The other valuable addition with this reissue is the inclusion of two tracks recorded by a Riley trio in 1960 in a bar Sheffield, when he was still too young to order a pint at the bar of Huddersfield's Grenier Blanc, where these numbers were recorded!

Even allowing for a youngster's tendency to overplay his hand, the versions here of "Just One of Those Things" and "September in the Rain" are extraordinarily precocious and reveal some serious listening to Bud Powell. The rhythm section of Malcolm Kaye on bass and Ray Binns on drums is none too shabby either. As Riley puts it, "If you heard me in Huddersfield in 1960, I was playing changes. If you heard me in London in the late 60s and early 70s, you'd have heard me playing free music because that was the logical thing after playing changes and set forms...Some things you just exhaust and, then when you get older, it becomes a case of pulling it together and hopefully that's where I'm at now." As Bill Evans noted, jazz is a "how" and not a "what." What Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian did between 1959-1961 was create a situation for the jazz piano trio where each player was an equal and where responsibility time, rhythm and even melody lay with each musician. Discussions shows how far Riley, Guy and Hiseman have taken that lesson on board.

The most obvious comparison lies with a number Evans would return to time and again, Miles Davis' "Nardis." Evans recorded "Nardis" with LaFaro and Motian on Explorations in 1959, arguably before the legendary Village Vanguard sessions so completely opened up the possibilities for dialogue within his trio. Like Evans, the Riley version here leads early on into a bass solo, which was itself a break with convention. However, the Evan's take on the piece is slower, more reflective and less dynamic—not much by way of "dancing in the chequered shade," as critic Brian Morton once wrote about Evans. The mood is stately and poised and Motian's role is largely restricted to keeping time, albeit beautifully, on brushes.

Riley's take is immediately brighter, the feeling much more con brio. The musicians are freed up more behind the soloist and Hiseman, in particular, is given freer rein than just keeping time. If the impression of that first great Evans' trio remains throughout Discussions it is as an acknowledged reference point, revealing at the same time how far and, in terms of Evans' later work, how presciently Riley et al were moving beyond the template.

Discussions featured three covers—"Nardis," "Sweet and Lovely" and "What's New." It is, however, the Riley originals which show how far the Riley trio were pushing the piano trio format. "Romance" reminded me of a Jacques Brel tune, "Les Bonbons." It is a ballad, beautifully weighted and largely a feature for Barry Guy. "Sunflower" is a brief essay in mood with arco bass from Guy. The music has an intensity that surprises even more when one realizes that it is built largely upon a simple melodic figure that is repeated with variation. "Children at Play" simultaneously suggests the frantic excitement of childhood but also the darker, potentially risky and disturbing aspects of play. It prefigures in some ways the music the Riley group would make on the next album, Angle. It is angular, spiky with just a hint of the Gothic. Hiseman's drums skitter around the fringes of an, at times, claustrophobic dialogue between Riley and Guy, again on bowed bass. Then positions and sparring partners shift, as in play, echoing perhaps the easy distractions of childhood. It lasts just five minutes and, yet, is more a little drama unfolding than just the glimpse indicated by its title, made all the more surprising by the fact that it is largely structured around two short, recurring motifs. Each musician plays beautifully but Hiseman is quite astonishing here.

"Spring is Here" could almost qualify as a "Desert Island Disc." One could call it an 'almost ballad.' It is quite open harmonically and played largely rubato by the trio but with a remarkable feeling of ebb and flow. This is exceptional group playing by any standards. The version of "What's New" that follows is a long walk from the Peggy Lee take of disappointment and self-protection. It also shifts along at a hell of a lick! Riley's solo is powerful and driving and, once more, the level of group interplay and communication is quite palpable. After its familiar opening statement, it becomes an entirely new composition and the return of theme at the end actually comes as a surprising reminder of where it began. One suspects that the title of "Folk Theme No. 1" was intentionally ironic, though bizarrely it does suggest a country hoedown, albeit in a parallel universe inhabited by hobgoblins or the like. It is quite delightful and another example of Riley's playful love of more Gothic elements in music.

Discussions is one of the rarest of jazz releases. Only ninety-nine copies were pressed, staying just below the Purchase Tax threshold. A mint copy can sell to a Japanese collector or Russian oligarch for as much as £1200/$1800. Rather makes the Dusk Fire release at £9/$14 a snip at twice the price.

I bought Angle in a remainder sale a year or so after its release. Though I never entirely understood its oblique, abstract and, I have to say it, 'angular' qualities at the time, I kept it. It has grown slowly in my affections but there is something about the sound on this Hux Records' issue that finely allows its fragile beauty full expression. Released here as a pair with the remarkable The Day Will Come, one of the finest jazz piano trio records ever made, Angle may perhaps finds its rightful place and be recognized for music that was, in its quiet way, several decades ahead of its time.

A certain dark atmosphere pervades several tracks on Angle, a sense heightened by the fact that the second track references Mervin Peake's Gothic masterpiece, "Gormenghast." At times, the music and its interior dialogues and trialogues seem so intense that they might combust. I think it is this that made it hard for me all those years ago to penetrate this multi-layered music. Both the opener "Exit" and "Gormenghast" are cases in point. The former begins with a scale, ascending and descending, before establishing its eight-bar theme as the basis for improvisation. The sound balance between the three instruments is very clear and precise, proof that this was a recording for a major label. Listen to how Guy solos as Riley punctuates his playing first with single notes, one per bar, then with a series of quaver triplets and then with rising and stabbing chords. It's a bravura moment, indeed.

"Gormenghast" is, arguably, the great Gothic fantasy novel and Riley focuses more on its humour perhaps than on its brooding melancholia. The track is taken at a fast tempo with Riley soloing against the rhythm section at times. Alan Jackson is one of the finest and most versatile drummers but his playing on Angle and The Day Will Come fits Riley's aesthetic to perfection. Jackson has great time but also an openness and freeness and an instinctive grasp of how and when only the unexpected will suffice. He makes the music breathe. Riley's need to feed a sometimes demanding and exacting muse is evident on the brief "S & S." Listen and imagine a miniature painting by George Grosz, if you will. And yet "Fragment," the ballad that follows reveals Riley's romantic side. Surprisingly, I have never heard anyone else do this number and yet it has the makings of a jazz standard. Perhaps the fact that much of it is in free time might put players off but there are many saxophonists I can think of who could steal this one and make it their own. Riley's own playing is lush and his chording at one point is wonderfully rich and expansive. Much of the piece is built around a dialogue between Riley and Guy but, again, the degree of empathy is quite astonishing. It is worth hearing just for the superior pianism of Riley's touch at the keyboard, different from that of Bill Evans but in its own way just as marvellous.

The title track switches tempo so frequently, it is hard to identify its underlying pulse. At times it seems like 4/4, then more like 12/8. Its title should probably be taken more as a description of the way the musicians relate to each other than as a description of the music itself. Its pace and dynamic must have been a challenge even for guys this talented. By this point references to other pianists or styles are superfluous. Riley is his own creation, as is Barry Guy. His arco solo here is a bravura performance but then Riley's own solo has a sense of flow and a lyricism all of its own. As for Jackson, one can imagine many a young player listening open-mouthed and praying inside for the imagination and sheer creativity that makes his contribution both so right and so highly personal. At one point, he adds these clipped martial fills behind Guy that at first surprise but which are simply perfect. His cymbal work is also second to none.

"Aftermath" calms things down and is really a feature for Jackson, who solos moving freely around the theme played by Riley and Guy. Perhaps the oddity here is the three movement piece "Three Fragments For Flute and Piano." Entirely through-composed, it features Riley and that exceptionally gifted woodwind player Barbara Thompson. The feel here is very much that of the European, post-Darmstadt art music of the time, though it also reminded me of a record of Alan Rawsthorne's chamber music that I have. I happen to like it and it offers a relief, if needed, from the intensity of that which has gone before. It also prefigures the direction that Riley's music would take in the late seventies and eighties.

The final track, "Gill" is best heard as a three-way group improvisation—or group therapy?—led first by Riley, then by Guy. Built from the slightest of materials, the immediate impression is of music emerging in the moment from the minds and hands of its makers. My slight reservation is of its placing at the end of this record. Its fragmentary and once again 'angular' qualities would sit better towards the centre of the record, allowing perhaps "Aftermath" to function as a kind of coda to the album. That said, it is an exceptional piece of group improvisation by three men still in their twenties and in Guy's case just twenty-two years old.

If Discussions was a calling card and Angle an announcement, then their successor was a declaration. With The Day Will Come, one hears a new lyricism in Riley's own playing as well as a gloriously, almost classical pianistic touch. One of the reasons the music works so well lies in its use of contrast. Certainly some tracks, for example the opener "Sphere" and "Winter" echo the intense introspection of Angle, but now their expressive potential is fully realized. There is something in these three players' abilities to lend just the right amount of emotional weight to each note or beat that grips the attention. Just four descending notes from Riley's left hand underpin "Winter" and, yet, you have that same feeling that you get when you have just read a really good short story. You have to go back, read it again and ask, "Did that really just happen?"

Writing duties on The Day Will Come are shared with Barry Guy. Again, the contrast between their writing styles further extends the palette used on Angle. Guy's "Dawn Vision," "Games" and "Playtime" are cases in point. Guy seems to bring out the more expansive, lighter (though no less substantial) side to Riley's playing. "Dawn Vision" and "Games" are marked by their epic sense of poise and grandeur. On the former, Riley really attacks the theme and his use of its melody line in his solo is quite uplifting. "Playtime" is well worth comparing with Riley's "Children at Play" from Discussions. The mood is subtly different. Simply, Guy's tune is playful and spirited, where Riley's hints at an underlying darkness. And there is a classical, richly romantic aspect to the opening ninety seconds of "Games" that I don't think would have come from Riley's pen. At the same time, all of these twelve tunes are realized in performance not on the page. They become what they are, realize their characters through interaction. Change one element, you change it all.

"Games" is one of the finest pieces on the record, which is given a bravura reading here. I suspect that every time one plays this album something fresh will strike the listener. Re-listening for this review, I heard Guy's "High" in a new light for its almost filmic qualities. The sheer unadulterated tenderness of Riley's playing on "Deeper" is immediately striking, a sense only heightened by the drama of "Games" which follows. The title track nags away at the memory but the record's finest moment comes with Riley's long "Funeral Song," which builds from its quiet, stuttering beginnings into something of sad, elegiac beauty. It may well be the most beautiful thing Riley ever recorded.

Jackson, a phenomenally active drummer in that period, left after The Day Will Come with Tony Oxley coming in his place. In 1971, Peter Eden's short-lived Turtle imprint brought out Flight and the trio later made Synopsis (1973)for Incus (later reissued by EMANEM), whilst a further unissued analogue recording, Overground was released on CD in 2001 (EMANEM). Sadly, though there has been so much else to treasure, the only other piano trio albums Riley has made are Wishing on the Moon (FMR 1995) with the very fine drummer Tony Marsh and equally impressive bassist Mario Castronari and Organic from 1979 (Jazzprint) with Guy and John Stevens on drums and cornet. All of these are highly recommended and obtainable.

Riley wrote his own sleevenotes for the original release of Angle and his words speak even more loudly and relevantly now. They serve also as a statement of an artistic life richly lived:

"The contributing musician of today, whether composer and/or performer, is singularly fortunate in that he or she is dealing directly with emotion and intellect, a re-affirmation of expressive virtues which is very necessary in a society controlled by mass media. The success or otherwise of this venture can never be judged in terms of level of acceptance in such a society. The music business and music are two very different things which can only meet under special and rarely encountered conditions."

I wish I'd written that.

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