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Howard Riley: Howard Riley: Lush Life

Duncan Heining By

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With the reissues of Discussions, Angle and The Day Will Come, the last few months have offered an embarrassment of riches for Howard Riley fans. We have here two recent solo recordings, one in the studio and one live in Lithuania, and a live duo album with the late, great Jaki Byard from 1985. Of course, there was a great deal going on between The Day Will Come and 10.11.12. There were duos with Keith Tippett, quartets with Art Themen and Larry Stabbins. Each situation seemed to bring out something different in his playing without ever diluting or compromising his own vision and craft.

In the 1980s, Riley played on a couple of occasions with Mingus alumnus Jaki Byard -the other performance is available on Feathers (also SLAM). R&B is warm, witty and thoroughly entertaining and a reminder that jazz need not always take itself too seriously to produce great music. It is basically a set of standards—"Body and Soul," "Round Midnight," "Straight, No Chaser" and Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird"—but with a couple of added improvisations in between.

I gave up trying to work out who was playing when after the first run through and just enjoyed the ride. Quite how the switching of roles and positions worked in practice is unclear, though Byard seems to take the lead in most cases. I think it's Byard who leads out of "Body and Soul" into the improvised "Open" (as good a title as any) as Riley accompanies him with rippling trills. After that, the game is afoot! Listening to the record, you really feel like you are there on that balmy evening in July 1985. A nod of recognition is carried across the audience as the pair slip into "Round Midnight" and is followed by, maybe, a few raised eyebrows as they take this into "Space," another improvised piece. Then, in comes "Straight, No Chaser" taken bravura style at a pace more suited to Bud Powell than Thelonious Monk. They encore with "Lady Bird" with Byard doubling on alto sax, still playing piano with his right hand. A fine album, by even the most exacting standards.

Riley uses essentially three approaches to solo performance. There are pieces that are entirely composed on the spot, then there are those which work from a pre-decided musical idea—a melody or chord sequence, perhaps. Lastly, there are jazz standards which leave open the potential for recomposition in the moment. For example, to be continued... includes a delightful take on Jerome Kern's "The Folks Who Live On The Hill" and 10.11.12 features Billy Strayhorn's gorgeous "Lush Life." All three approaches seem in evidence on the solo discs.

10.11.12 is a vinyl only release from the prestigious Lithuanian label NoBusiness. The label have already issued several Riley albums on CD, including the remarkably diverse and diverting six CD set The Complete Short Stories 1998-2010. The first thing one notices with 10.11.12 is the richness and quality of the sound. It is pure and pristine and captures every nuance of Riley's highly pianistic touch. I do not think I have ever enjoyed a record so much for its sonic perfection. This is surely the way to hear all great music.

The second thing that one notices, not for the first time, is how deeply Riley is immersed in the jazz tradition and the blues. One could talk about influences and, obviously, Duke Ellington and Monk would stand out but these and others have been thoroughly absorbed long ago. What one hears is a pianist whose oeuvre is as highly distinctive and personnel as any pianist currently working. One thinks instantly of the names Cecil Taylor, Marilyn Crispell, Keith Tippett, Irene Schweizer, Paul Bley and, maybe, Matthew Shipp as artists of comparable stature, whose work also carries a similarly personal stamp.

The first two tracks—"Dwelling One" and "Dwelling Two"—offer a mini-suite, as Riley moves across a distinctly American landscape that is marked by the blues and by the Great American Songbook. But Riley's journey is through a landscape that he is reimagining and not recreating. The music evokes so many visual images—my own, I am sure rather than Riley's—but so often listening to Riley solo, I find a story or series of pictures unfolding before me. He is a narrator or storyteller par excellence. Think of Charles Ives' American portraits in music or Raymond Carver's short stories by way of an analogy. By contrast, "Understanding" which closes Side 1 is a wonderfully warm piece of music and improvisation that conveys the sense that one is eavesdropping on a master musician woodshedding at the keyboard. The sense of flow of ideas and movement is quite sublime and, yet, it is achieved without repetition but with a profound sense of form.

That same high level of inspiration continues on Side 2 with "From Somewhere." In fact, with this track it is even as if Riley has gone up a gear. This is perhaps the most intense, though no less eloquent or elegant, of all six tracks. One senses Riley concentrating, as he moves deeper and deeper into its intricate melodies and sonorities. "Identification" continues in that vein but emphasising the rhythmic abilities that the pianist brings to solo performance. If anything, "Identification" lends a greater sense of drama to proceedings—a reaching towards a climax or rather a final denouement. If so, then his version of "Lush Life" is both a coda and offers a sense of closure. Just before the end, Riley provides a glimpse of how Ellington would have ended the tune. It is the perfect ending to a record that may well be Riley's finest solo album to date.

to be continued... appears on saxophonist George Haslam's SLAM label and is almost as good. The title track opens proceedings, its narrative structure emerging slowly as Riley sets the scene and mood. There are references to Monk but also to the English folk song "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme." From such beginnings, Riley fashions a series of musical vignettes or postcards. Again, the blues is never far away.

With "East West" and "Just Maybe" the narrative touches base at Broadway, Birdland and Harlem. On the latter, Riley's left hand bass line seems to echo those Harlem piano players who influenced both Ellington and Monk.

Perhaps the closest parallel—not influence, I stress -is Paul Bley. Riley and Bley share both a story-telling approach to solo performance and a love of melody. Even when Riley strays into more abstract territory as on the opening of the fragmentary "Two Part Intention" (a Bach-ian joke), it might stretch tonality but it is never atonal. Witness how he opens "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," piecing together melody lines that draw upon the standard but which only hint at its theme before finally stating it towards the end.

The pace is kept slow(-ish) throughout, though there is plenty of space for some delightful flurries of notes as on "Haunted" and the Monkish "Solving the Problem." And once again, as evidenced so clearly on R&B and on 10.11.12, Riley is a very strong rhythm player. "Descending Thoughts" reveals this particularly clearly. He opens with just his right-hand playing in a high register, each note strongly accented. Slowly his left hand begins to punctuate the melody and you realise that even though this is in free time, one can sense a strong, underlying 4/4 pulse. About halfway through, it then develops into a slow blues without breaking stride. No pun, as they say. "One More Thing" closes the record beautifully and with a delicacy, romanticism and lyricism that somehow seems older than Ellington or Monk, something almost from an earlier century. Debussy or Ravel or, perhaps, even Satie. It's a perfect finish to another fine Howard Riley album.

Track Listing: Album Title #1 First Track; Second Track. Album Title #2 First Track; Second Track.

Personnel: Album Title #1 Player Name: instrument; Player Name: instrument Album Title #2 Player Name: instrument; Player Name: instrument

Title: Howard Riley: Lush Life | Year Released: 2015

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CD/LP/Track Review
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