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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.

"He would never fix the solo order. So, you had your written stuff but you had to be on your toes because it might be you up next. He was good like that and I really liked him a lot. I keep Googling him and he's still doing things!"

Riley's approach to the piano is not easy to pin down. He's so much more than his acknowledged inspirations—from Bud Powell and Monk, through Ellington and Bill Evans. In his case, there is a sense, of which Riley is aware, that his career has involved a series of different phases. Though the journey has seen him discard some things along the way, he has also retained what he has found of most value, bringing these different elements together in a unique, highly distinctive style.

As he puts it, "I've realised with me that there's always change happening, which is good. But when I've changed I've still kept the best bits from before. 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. Yet, you can always bring certain things from previous areas. 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."

It follows that Riley regrets nothing he has done over a jazz life that now spans 55 years. He even played at Butlin's holiday camp whilst at college and did a spell on the boats, 'playing commercial music.' As he says ruefully, "It was good because it put me off it for life." For him, the key is to build something and to do so requires an understanding of the basics of jazz history. As he says, "I am a believer that you need to know a bit about that in order to advance. Leaping straight into free playing as such is fraught with perils."

Not that the choices that he has made along the way have been easy ones. The jazz audience, not least in the UK, can be quick to pigeonhole or locate an artist at a particular point. "Records are the last thing left standing," he says, "because you can look back and say that that was 1968 and that was what was happening then. That's why I've always tried to make the next record a bit different from the last one, though the problem is that most people listen to a record and think, 'Ahah! That's it. I've nailed him.' But they might be listening to something you did in 1976 but not hearing it in context."

This has led to difficulties—for him and others—in gaining access to the broader jazz audience he deserves. Riley is hugely respected by the most adventurous performers and listeners—there is a very good reason why he has been first choice pianist in Barry Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra. Check out his solo on "Part IV —Strophe II"from Ode. But more conservative fans ignore, for example, recordings where his love of bebop and of Ellington and Monk have been to the fore, such as The Monk & Ellington Sessions and now Live with Repertoire.

Of course, large ensemble gigs have been rare, such activity largely restricted to work with the LJCO. Beyond that one can divide Riley's activity into four distinct, if related (through the cross-fertilisation of his own approach to and ideas about music) areas—solo, overdubbed piano, trio and small group. It is perhaps the latter for which the pianist is least known. However, as he points out he played in Barbara Thompson's first quartet and there have also been groups with saxophonist Art Themen and the late Elton Dean, as well as a quartet with Barry Guy, Trevor Watts and John Stevens. That group produced the excellent Endgame in 1979 for ECM. According to Riley, some six hours of music was recorded leading John Stevens to start having fantasies about 10 CD box sets.

More recently, the band with Elton Dean, bassist Paul Rogers and drummer Mark Saunders (Descending Circles 1995) provided a wonderful example of how in jazz four such highly inimitable talents can come together to make music that allowed each individual to achieve creative heights in the context of the collective. Riley's comments reveal not just the quartet's virtues but how his own musical attitude was reflected within it.

"We could play in different areas together. It wasn't, 'Oh, now let's play free.' You didn't really notice when we played free or play changes." And he compares this to fellow pianist Paul Bley's way of working. "You don't say, 'This is Paul Bley playing changes and now he's playing free.' You just think that's Paul Bley. To me, that's the ultimate sophisticated development in playing. And another is that with free playing, it's like anything else, like bebop—after a while you get to know it and it's just as prone to cliché. What's important is to keep developing because the temptation is to say, 'That's it.'"

For a player who has recorded and performed so often solo, one of the most noteworthy, even paradoxical, characteristics of Howard Riley's work lies in the fact that he is also such a wonderfully empathic musician. Riley's history is a testament to the notion that, often, individual excellence is achieved in the context of a collective of equally empathic, articulate peers. His recording career began with Discussions (1967), featuring Barry Guy and Jon Hiseman. It was a very limited release and is now one of the most collectable of jazz records. Angle (1969) and the astonishingly beautiful The Day Will Come (1970) followed for CBS, with Alan Richard Jackson replacing Hiseman on the drums. Two further trio albums followed—Flight (1971) for producer Peter Eden's short-lived Turtle label and Synthesis on Incus (1973)—with Tony Oxley on drums. On these last two records, Oxley and Guy were already using electronics. With the two CBS sets coming out in 2014 on Hux Records, all of these records will be available for the first time on CD and what an astonishing sequence of releases they were and are.
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