Howard Riley

Short Stories (Volume Two)
SLAM CD 2070

Unjustly neglected – at least outsides of the United Kingdom – pianist Howard Riley, 65, could be characterized as the forgotten man of first generation British improvisers. While his associates of earlier days such as bassist Barry Guy, trombonist Paul Rutherford and saxophonist Evan Parker attained some measure of renown, Riley has almost no extra-U.K. profile.

Perhaps it’s because he’s a notated composer as well as an improviser; a player who prefers the solo format over group work, at least since he ceded his chair in the London Jazz Composers Orchestra; an educator – he has led jazz piano workshops at Goldsmiths, University of London since the 1960s – as well as a performer; and someone who flits between Jazz, Free Jazz and Free Music, a distinctive deemed important is certain circles.

This two-disc set, with 15 tracks on each CD should raise his profile considerably. Spontaneous in execution, but defined by a determination to keep his musical storytelling around the 3½-minute mark, these short stories are as perfectly realized as the work of John O’Hara, Katherine Anne Porter or any other literary miniaturist who presents a fully realized tale within the confines of a few printed pages. Only one tune on Disc 1 is over four minutes; and only six are that extended on Disc 2.

High praise for committed musicians is that they “tell a story” in their solos, and Riley does that every time here, complete with an introduction, development, variations and an unequivocal ending. Without taking away from his singular achievement, the architecturally balanced cameos here echo the work of some other pianists. One can sense an affinity to Jaki Byard – with whom he recorded duets in the past – and Thelonious Monk, and through those modernists, a link to the rhythmic Stride of James P. Johnson and Willie the Lion Smith. Unique however is how he tempers Monk’s angularity with technical flourishes and an encyclopedic compendium of pop ballad conventions à la Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum. Riley’s strong rhythmic sense and manual creation of multi piano lines also relate his solos to the spectacular individual achievements of Lennie Tristano or Herbie Nichols. At points Riley’s recital speed also suggests Cecil Taylor. But with the majority of the 30 selections here taken allegro, the reference point may be Taylor’s speed, not his preference for contrasting dynamics.

Similarly, while the single CDs in this set were recorded two years apart, there’s almost no textural fissure between the two programs. For example contrast Riley’s treatment of “Maybe” on Disc 1, with his elaboration of “Hear Me Out” on Disc 2. The former appears to be some relative of “’Round Midnight”, with notes emphasized in the left hand, and carefully drawn out chords that are weighted with extra pressure as the tune evolves. Working shifting polytones and polyrhythms into his rubato patterns, Riley uses deliberate voicing to maintain the initial theme.

In contrast, “Hear Me Out” is a blunt, skittering compendium of note clusters and pulses that arise from both hands and feature accented cadenzas and chord structures. As the overlaid lines consistently bounce and roll among the emphasized pulses, the piece works up to an impressionistic etude of flying note clusters which almost visually sparkle. Before the melody fades away in pedal echoes, Riley has created variations that reference both Monk’s moods and American songbook ballads.

Elsewhere on Disc 1 “Reconciliation” pinpoints how fanning key motifs and strident climaxes keep sentimentality away from a series of near-impressionistic piano clusters. Other, even shorter, pieces showcase Stride ornamentations with organic clashes, high frequency fortissimo and staccato pulses or demonstrate how high-frequency Swing-inflected runs don’t have to be neglected in a modernist performance.

With his concepts further refined on Disc 2, Riley’s able to create a tour-de-force such as “Open Question”. It features both hands producing separate lines vibrating sympathetically in double counterpoint with one another. They move in parallel fashion, but never quite meet or intersect. Meanwhile a track like “No Regrets” highlights how foreboding runs and grisaille tinctures can enable a piece to wrap up Monk’s rangy key-clipping, Peterson’s exuberant technique and Tristano’s cerebral note excavating into a neat keyboard package

Again other short tunes emphasize how Riley can ping-pong from an impressionistic scherzo to double and triple stopping to leaven a ballad mood; or alternately how a contrapuntal replacement of note clusters in different order and in unique organization can make it appear as if four hands, not two, are layering the sounds.

Obviously renown and obscurity mean different things for different people and there’s no suggestion that under-appreciated Riley is in any way suffering the fate of such underground 1950s jazz piano legends as John Dennis or Ibn Ali Hasaan. But with kudos aimed at showier solo piano performers who can’t approximate Riley’s range – and more importantly his musical restraint – his achievement should be celebrated. Discover this yourself with these CDs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1: 1. Geocentric One 2. Up and Downs 3. With Ease 4. The Gap 5. Think Again 6. Geocentric Two 7. Palmate 8. Walkabout 9. Reconciliation 10. Branch Lines 11. Head Games 12. Splits 13. Concision 14. Shenanigans 15. Maybe Disc 2: 1. Another Time 2. No Regrets 3. Ascending 4. Still Standing 5. Threesome 6. Of the moment 7. Reflective Tendencies 8. Inevitably 9. Sentiments 10. Open Question 11. Hidden Knowledge 12. Meeting 13. Hear Me Out 14. Passing 15. Roots

Personnel: Howard Riley (piano)