Howard RileyThe Complete Short Stories 1998-2010No Business Records
Veteran British pianist Howard Riley has found a champion from an unexpected source in the adventurous Lithuanian label, No Business. After issuing a double CD of the pianist's one man concert in the capital, Live In Vilnius
(2010), it has gone further with a box set collecting a brace of previously released solo double disc sets along with a another two discs of previously unreleased material. Riley revels in the exposed format: he already has at least 11 solo sets to his name, but this collection is more than justified and deserves to elevate Riley to the upper echelons of the piano pantheon.
Born in Huddersfield 68 years ago, the pianist has had a varied career, ranging from the early trios featuring bassist Barry Guy
, to piano duos with Jaki Byard
and Keith Tippett
, to small groups with reedmen Elton Dean
and Lol Coxhill
, coming full circle as soloist with Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra
. What distinguishes his work is a keen intelligence and an orchestral conception, even when in the spotlight alone. Short Stories
(1998) and Short Stories Volume 2
(2006) were originally issued on the ESProductions and Slam labels. The fifth disc was recorded in 2008 but has never previously seen the light of day, while the sixth was created in 2010 especially for this issue.
Even with such disparate recording dates, Riley sustains a remarkable focus throughout: his playing is richly voiced and lucent, and his technique audacious, whether shifting from bracing two handed independence to vibrant call and response or single note streams on dampened strings. It's not clear if the pieces were composed, preconceived or spontaneous, but there are few obvious melodies or heads. Instead he adheres to an austere modern palette, somewhere between a more urgent Paul Bley
and a less percussive, decelerated Cecil Taylor
. But he leavens any perceived harshness with broad hints of jazz, blues, stride and romanticism, all assembled into finely balanced miniatures. His twin touchstones of Duke Ellington
and Thelonious Monk
are sensed rather than worn on the sleeve, with the only overt homage appearing at the close of the fifth disc on "Thinking of Midnight," where Riley paraphrases the latter's classic. While it is possible to name check any number of references to do so ignores the fact that Riley has transcended his influences to become a singular voice.
Notwithstanding a marked consistency of tempo, Riley programs to avoid excessive similarity so the warmth of "Think Again," which could be a ballad from the tradition with chord changes and rippling treble register runs, is followed by the arrhythmic stabs of "Geocentric Two." Elsewhere "Hullabaloo" essays a sparkling barrelhouse undergirding, embellished by right hand variations, as the left maintains a tripping bass rumble, while the following "New Winter" could almost be more abstract revisions hewn from the same seam. Ultimately comparing sources becomes a distraction. Even where a link exists, as when Riley explains in the illuminating sleeve note that for the final session he returned to the substance of the previous date to create five longer extended form pieces, it's impossible to discern any connection.
With 74 cuts, most in the 2-5 minute range, it's fruitless picking out individual highlights. Each pass yields different pleasures. Tracks that stand out in one listen are overshadowed by others the next depending on mood. The brevity of the tracks works in their favor. As distillations of ideas, pared down to the essentials, shorn of padding, they encourage concentration and allow enjoyment to flourish in bite-sized chunks. When allied with the unfailing level of artistry it makes this collection one of the finds of the year.
Tracks: CD1: The Opener; Eleven; Liason; Encore; Echoes; No Void; Stretch; Mythology; Branching; Hullabaloo; New Winter; Largo; Played In; Veracity; Only One; Headway. CD2: Short Stories; Dedication; Sun One; One More Time; Axis; The Furthest Point; After Which; Air Time; Alternatives; Regeneration; For Jaki; To Be Sure; Sun Two; Sincerity; Of Now. CD3: Geocentric One; Up And Downs; With Ease; The Gap; Think Again; Geocentric Two; Palmate; Walkabout; Reconciliation; Branch Lines; Head Games; Splits; Concision; Shenanigans; Maybe. CD4: Another Time; No Regrets; Ascending; Still Standing; Threesome; Of the Moment; Reflective Tendencies; Inevitably; Sentiments; Open Question; Hidden Knowledge; Meeting; Hear Me Out; Passing; Roots. CD5: Autograph; Distance; Silhouette; Only One; The Fourteenth; There You Are; Evidently; Related; Moving; Equanimity; Stopped; Reversal; Thinking of Midnight. CD6: Dark On Light; Set Aside; Longevitine; Move On; Composure.
Personnel: Howard Riley: piano.