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Howard Riley: Live with Repertoire

Duncan Heining By

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Pianist Howard Riley turned 70 in February and belatedly celebrates the event with the release of a new CD, Live with Repertoire (NoBusiness Records). It's a really strong live, solo set of standards and a few original tunes recorded last year in Leicester and one that emphasises one particular aspect of his playing. Riley remains one of the most gifted interpreters of the jazz repertoire in Britain or beyond.

The last few years have not been easy for Riley. It was on a gig at the Royal Festival Hall in a trio with Barre Phillips and drummer Steve Noble and that he first noticed something was wrong. He couldn't make his left hand work and played the set out just using his right. It came back but a few weeks later on a recording session, Riley found he couldn't play at all. The diagnosis was swift and shocking. He had Parkinson's Disease. He was forced to stop playing for a month—a time he describes as 'the worst period of my life'—but, thankfully, once his medication was sorted out, it all came back though a certain loss of strength meant a revision of technique.

This all makes Live with Repertoire all the more remarkable because Riley's own personality and individuality shines through a series of tunes such as "Round Midnight," "Body and Soul" and the delightful perennial "Darn That Dream." It is clear that Riley has approached the condition with a certain amount of stoicism and with a strong determination to continue doing what he loves—playing jazz.

"You have to really come to terms with the psychological aspect," he says, "because it's not going to get better. It's degenerative. That's the hardest thing of all. It doesn't go away but then....so far, so good." Then he adds laughing, "Live with Repertoire is my first post-Parkinson's record, though that's not exactly a great selling point!"

Riley was born in Huddersfield. His dad was an engineer but, in his spare time, he was also a keen dance band pianist. Although Riley senior played by ear, he started his son on piano when he was just 6 years old. Until university, this was the only instruction, the pianist had on the instrument. Then in his teens, Riley started getting into jazz.

"That was the music that caught my ear," he says. It was Bud Powell and Monk, whose playing resonated most for Riley, though George Shearing was also an interest for a time, but as he notes, "I soon realised that Bud Powell was a rather more serious proposition. So, aesthetically, I began to sort it all out in my head." Whilst still at grammar school, Riley formed his own trio playing 3 times a week in local clubs. "That was more than I've done since," he says laughing.

From school, he went to the University of Wales in Bangor to study literature but changed to music after his second year. "I rather blagged my way onto that, persuading them that they needed me there studying music," he explains. "I was lucky because there were two fairly contemporary composers on the faculty—Reginald Smith-Brindle and Bernard Rands, who is still alive and ended up teaching at Yale. It could have been a waste of time but it was actually quite stimulating because they were into contemporary things."

At the same time, Riley continued playing jazz forming another trio. "I tried to get the bassist into playing like Scott LaFaro but he wasn't having it," he laughs. Nevertheless, despite such limitations, the trio was good enough to make it to the finals of the National Jazz Federation Student Competition in 1963 at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon. Also, on the bill were groups from Leeds featuring pianist Brian Priestley, one from Oxford with critic and wit Miles Kington on bass, another from Birmingham with later Spencer Davis drummer Pete York and more significantly a group, also from the UK's second city, with Evan Parker on flute and saxophone.

"I remember walking down the hallway," he tells me, "and there was the sound of a very Coltraneish tenor coming out of the dressing room. I thought he's really good. Of course, we were all copying but I realised what he was doing was off the latest Coltrane record. So, I popped my heard round the door and introduced myself. That's how I met Evan Parker"

With a BA and an MA in music from Bangor, Riley then studied for a further degree at Indiana with George Russell alumnus, David Baker. It was the connection to Russell's music connection, in particular Esthetics with Eric Dolphy, that encouraged Riley to make contact with Baker and his jazz course at Indiana State. Baker made a big impression on the young man, who also played in the university big band.

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