RILEY/SANDERS/STABBINS/WREN

Four in the afternoon
Emanem 4067

HOWARD RILEY/LOL COXHILL
Duology
SLAM CD 249

One of the significant British musicians involved in the transition of the sound from jazz to Free Jazz to Free Improv, and all its variations, pianist Howard Riley has a vastly lower profile than many of his compatriots.

The 60-year-old pianist, who has taught at the Guildhall School of Music and London’s Goldsmiths College since the late 1960s, may be in fans’ consciousness for his work in the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) or for his early trio with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Tony Oxley. Yet besides that he has led a band with altoist Elton Dean and recorded scads of discs, solo and with partners like American pianist Jaki Byard.

Celebrity may be fickle, but Riley’s reputation as a musician’s musician is brought into clearer focus on two recent discs featuring him in the company of old associates. FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON gives the pianist free reign in a band featuring veteran saxophonist Larry Stabbins, 53, best-known for his pop/jazz band Working Week, but whose freer associations included pianist Keith Tippett’s big bands, a trio with drummer Louis Moholo and Mama Lapato with bassist Tony Wren. Wren, 55, a founding member of the London Musicians’ Collective, who has been involved with free music since the later 1960s is present here as well, as is young’un, percussionist Mark Sanders, who has played with everyone on the British scene from Evan Parker to John Butcher.

DUOLOGY, as the title makes clear, is a two-man meeting from a few months later, featuring Riley matching wits with soprano saxist Lol Coxhill. Coxhill, 71, who may be BritImprov’s most versatile player, has a playing history that encompasses everything from memberships in early Beat group and big dance bands to punk rock gigs and improvisations with guitarist Derek Bailey.

In the quartet formation, some of the pianist’s most imposing playing comes on “Where are the snows…” and “Rough crossing”. The latter, which is also one of the few places Wren’s strumming bass work has proper presence, frames Riley’s keyboard in arco rubs and what sounds like Sanders manipulating the claves. With an expansive, sliding tone he works his way allegro up the scale until it sounds like two pianists collaborating harmonically. Feathery chording arises from one hand and a complete secondary, but complementary melody from the other. Double tonguing, Stabbins on soprano then enters, chirping out fast runs which turn to a sepulchral serpentine tone to meet the pianist’s splashing runs. His radiating arpeggios, spread still wider with pedal pressure, convinces the saxman to introduce some novel Evan Parker-like wiggles. As Stabbins mouse-squeaks his output down to silence, Sanders’ kit rumbles and pinpoints sections with rim shots.

No mere celebration of yesteryear, the balladic “snows…” feature allegro pianisms and sparkling Pan-flute-like tones, with both soprano sax and piano chasing each others’ tails like small pooches. As Riley plays a seesaw rhythm in a more conventional jazzy style, Stabbins responds with trilling double tonguing so that the vibrations from each note sound again and again. Understated, Sanders hi-hat whacks and drum rolls reference modern jazz as well.

“Transcension”, which give you an idea what the 1963 John Coltrane quartet would have sounded like with Rachmanioff in McCoy Tyner’s seat, features thick, high frequency chording on Riley’s part which meet shrilling multiphonics from Stabbins that rebound into false registers. Meanwhile the drummer drives his cymbals and snare to their limits. The pianist’s seemingly endless supply of energy serves him well, as his pounding arpeggios meet Sanders’ efforts and Stabbins’ piercing cries.

Elsewhere the pianist constructs single-note moves as if he playing chess, coming up with sweeping piano chords or doubled tremolos, depending on whether the saxman is in full Albert Ayler Free Jazz mode or turning out low energy tenor sax blowing as if he was a POMO Stan Getz. Riley’s bebop underlay serves him well in the second situation, even if the reedist’s well modulated, mid-range tones become spikier and more staccato and introduce ear-splitting freak notes. Twinkling right handed arpeggios matched with comprehensive chordal harmonies then cause Stabbins to downpedal his shrieks to trills.

It’s almost the same on “Game of two halves” — the longest track at 17 minutes plus — where Stabbins’ contributions range from chesty honks to disconnected renal squeaks, smears and runs. Flashing arpeggios, extended contrasting dynamics and circular high frequency cadenzas from the piano mold the instant composition into a whole, leaving space for cross-metered drumming and barely audible arco bass scratches.

Holding his own in the company of three old friends could almost be heard as Riley’s preliminary bout for a mano-à-mano face-off with Coxhill, whose 50 plus years of playing experience make the pianist appear a tyro. Not that there’s any animosity between the two, who have worked occasionally as a duo for more than a quarter century. It’s just that Riley must play chameleon piano to match Coxhill’s “Zelig”-like soprano saxophone.

Take the almost 18 minutes of “Two Timing”, which begins with the reedist vibrating shrill tones as if his axe possessed an electronic attachment, while Riley runs adagio through the piano’s insides. The pianist’s low frequency fantasia expands into what could be the sound of an army of elves traipsing over the treble keys as Coxhill alternately blows raspberries from his reed or pumps honks from deep within his bow. Soon waterfalls of notes seep across the key bed, with pedal work extending the tones still more. Coxhill’s tone becomes higher and more grating in screech mode, as Riley creates a pedal point bottom while commenting cross-handed on the other’s exposition. When the saxman turns to absolute split tones, including duck quacks, cries and a section where he holds onto one note for an ear-splitting half-minute or so, the pianist flashes arpeggios that head into low frequency unfolding harmonies.

And so it goes. Throughout, each appears to be playing different, intersecting melodies without contact, until midway through Coxhill unveils a phrase that’s echoed by Riley. Although the sorpranoist does reference Middle-Eastern musette-like tones, slurred fingering and twittering freak notes and the keyboardist responds with full European classical techniques, you sense a underlying concordance. By the end there are intimations that the two are skirting half-forgotten Broadway show tunes and Riley is torquing his notes so that there’s the suggestion of stride piano downbeats. Finally, recalling the beginning, Coxhill reintroduces slurred twittering and Riley dampens the strings as he pummels them with his other hand.

Despite their status as card-carrying avant-gardists, both players have enough grounding in the jazz tradition that other mainstream implications peep out among their experimentation. On “Exemplary”, for instance, you hear both feral cries from Coxhill’s slurred trills and a glissando that appear to have migrated over from “Rhapsody In Blue”. “Broom Dust” may depend on the contrasting dynamics of light-fingered, right hand work from Riley, but he gets into a mainstream mode when Coxhill changes from a smeary, mid-tempo line with ney-like qualities to spraying out a section that’s seems to want to be “Rock Around The Clock”.

“Say No” begins with what sounds like Riley sounding out a syncopated “Three Blind Mice”, emphasizing different note clusters, then operating cross handed, with digits seemingly leaping into forgotten corners, spearing a single note here-and-there, then bringing them forth for individual examination. Coxhill’s rasping kazoo sound from his sax also has off-kilter Swing underpinning. Listen carefully enough and you’ll likely hear the shades of boppers Sonny Stitt on sax and Barry Harris on piano hovering in the improvisations.

The autumnal creativity of the likes of Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins should long ago have put to rest the shibboleth that jazz is a young person’s art. Riley’s cascading triple glisses and full-fledged, double-timed triple forte expositions, plus Coxhill’s investigations of bow-ratting claxon calls power on one hand and entry into traffic policeman’s reed whistle territory on the other, proves that non-traditional expansion of the language is possible in improv despite moving into pensionable territory. So does the work of the other slightly younger — and in Sanders’ case very much younger — musicians on the other disc.

Both overlong — more than 72 minutes each — CDs offer amply opportunity to examine this phenomenon, and to discover or rediscover Riley’s talents.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Four: 1. A soft day 2. Game of two halves 3. Where are the snows... 4. Rough crossing 5. Blue dark 6. Embarrassment of witches 7. Transcension

Personnel: Four: Larry Stabbins (soprano and tenor saxophones); Howard Riley (piano); Tony Wren (bass); Mark Sanders (percussion)

Track Listing: Duology: 1. Breaking the habit 2. Solo for Lol 3. Exemplary 4. Blankets 5. Say yes 6. Say no 7. Big pond 8. Eat my hat 9.Two timing 10. Hearing is believing 11. Duology 12. Broom dust

Personnel: Duology: Lol Coxhill (soprano saxophone); Howard Riley (piano)