Howard Riley Solo piano All compositions by H Riley Recorded by Derek Nash at Clown's Pocket Recording Studio, London Disc 1 rec. 29.06.04, disc 2 02.08.06
1 Geocentric One 3:42
2 Up and Downs 2:48
3 With Ease 3:12
4 The Gap 3:18
5 Think-Again 3:30
6 Geocentric Two3:25
7 Palmate 3:38
8 Walkabout 2:31
9 Reconciliation 3:36
10 Branch Lines 3:23
11 Head Games 2:35
12 Splits 2:30
13 Concision 3:46
14 Shenanigans 3:08
15 Maybe 5:42
1 Another Time 3:33
2 No Regrets 3:15
3 Ascending 2:07
4 Still Standing 3:22
5 Threesome 4:31
6 Of the Moment4:31
7 Reflective Tendencies 4:46
8 Inevitably 3:24
9 Sentiments 3:31
10 Open Question 4;30
11 Hidden Knowledge 4:57
12 Meeting 2:19
13 Hear Me Out 6.13
14 Passing 2:56
15 Roots 6:05
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 encyclopaedic 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.
AAJNY July 2007 Howard Riley's Short Stories (Volume II) evinces the influences of walking bass lines, bop chord voicings and swing, but leans more to the progressive lyricism of Keith Jarrett, the angular phrasing of Thelonious Monk ("Roots" recalls Monk's "Misterioso") and the muscular bombast of Cecil Taylor. Riley reaches into the sound-box to create impromptu, 'unprepared' piano pitches, as on "Concision" and "Passing"; elsewhere, his incessant ideations, featuring audaciously independent right- and lefthand 'personalities', coalesce in a textural gestalt of high density and intensity. Tom Greenland
Jazz Review May 2007
Riley plays solo piano with a sense of glee, that feeling you get when you wake up on the first day of a holiday and find that the sun is up and you dogs haven’t been sick on the carpet. The feeling that anything good is possible. Freedom beckons. I haven’t heard Riley in this context before, having missed Vol 1, but having relished his work in the 70s with people such as Barry Guy and Tony Oxley I listened here with anticipation as he took the open road.
There’s little point in taking you track by track through 30 pieces as diverse and clangorous as these: but do pay attention to "The Gap", where the pianist churns out hitherto undiscovered harmonies and gives the instrument a serious workout at either end. He follows this with "Think Again", a reflective and bluesy item in which gripping dissonances raise their heads. Riley keeps these inventions short, frequently shorter than three minutes with the longest one being the finale at 6:05. In general, Howard Riley stirs the piano into action, stirs it up like a good Havana cigar and then asks questions of it, as he does in "Palmate", a medium-paced exploration of harmonic possibility. The piano survives, a magnificently resonant instrument. The touches of Monk and the American rent-party stride players peep through from time to time., linking this Yorkshire-born performer to the music that first inspired him. You hear something of this in "Another Time" – but there’s not much to be gained in always relating the music to the chosen titles. "Ascending", for example, frequently descends. "Still Standing", which follows, cavorts in tightly-chorded bluesiness. "Of The Moment" is a kind of boogie-woogie pastiche. The claim is that ‘all compositions’ are by Howard Riley, but these are not ‘compositions’ in the way that you might interpret the term. They are completely spontaneous creations by a single, gifted, enlightened individual and nobody else could possibly play them. Riley himself could never repeat them as they exist here. The longest piece, called "Roots", opens as a sombre tone-poem of regretfulness but cheers up amazingly as Riley seems unable to repress that sense of gleeful freedom. Soon we are dashing about on meadows strewn with crazy harmonies and instant ideas. Riley is an impressionist of the keyboard, restlessly seeking original modes of expressing the emotion that lies at the core of jazz music. I heard what he did with deep admiration.
The Wire, April 2007 Howard Riley's solo piano improvisations combine spontaneous invention with a pronounced sense of structural inevitability. It's as though his choice of opening phrase implies an entire architecture; what follows works towards realising that projection. Riley has a rare ability to envisage the design from the detail. In the past that ability has been demonstrated on occasion through the shaping of embitiously lengthy pieces and dense multitracked constructions. His second volume of Short Stories offers 30 concise and concentrated real-time solos, each self-contained and making perfect sense, holding logic and intuition in fine balance.
At the close of the 1060s Riley had a cutting edge trio with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Alan Jackson. A decade later he and Guy were working freely with Spontaneous Music Ensemble founders John Stevens on drums and Trevor Watts on also sax. Since the early 1980s he has engaged in a series of remarkable piano duets with kindred spirit Keith Tippett. Increasingly during all this, Riley has registered awareness of jazz piano history in his playing, displaying in particular his affinity with Thelonious Monk's music. That's a matter of choice rather than compromise. As a series of recent issues have confirmed, Howard Riley is one of the finest improvising pianists currently playing and he remains in relative neglect while far less substantial musicians receive acclaim. Time to redress that; he's generously offering the opportunity once again. Julian Cowley
Jazzwise, April 2007 Volume One came out in 1999. Short Stories (Volume Two) continues the tale with 30 short tracks over two CDs. As Riley notes, working in this way allows for a great variety of ideas and moods to be explored. As free improv goes, these are highly tuneful and stylistically varied pieces that unfold with reference to an originally conceived motif or sketch. These are most definitely tunes with beginnings, middles and ends but Riley may only know the first in advance. They obey rules of key and pitch, although the exploration of scales often seems to be modal in nature. So, you might get a ballad like the lovely 'Think Again' or the blues-infused 'Reconciliation' or, given Riley's great interest in rhythm and strong left-hand, something with an almost barrel-house feel like 'Geocentric Two'. Riley is drawing on a vast mental library of sounds, musical ideas and phrases - almost like a language - that is then created anew in the moment. Some of these pieces - the melodious, mellifluous 'Still Standing' or Bill Evans-like 'Reflective Tendencies' - have an almost ready familiarity about them. Some ideas work better than others but Howard Riley is definitely in the middle of a purple patch creatively. Duncan Heining
DMG Newsletter HOWARD RILEY - Short Stories/ Volume 2 (Slam) Thirty short original piano improvisations by the acknowledged master of the art, Howard Riley, one disc recorded in June of 2004 and the other in August of 2006. In a couple of years, British avant/jazz piano legend, Howard Riley's career will enter its 40th year. Mr. Riley will have more than 40 releases by then of solos, duos (w/ Keith Tippett & Lol Coxhill), trios, as well as working with folks like Elton Dean, Barry Guy and Tony Oxley. What is different about this release is that all but two of the pieces here is under six minutes, which is unusual for a Mr. Riley's more extended works. This does in no way detract from Riley's power, creativity and depth of spirit. Each piece sounds as if he has something to prove. Riley appears to be drawing from a variety of streams, many from the history of jazz. I hear bits of stride and with elements much further out on "Ups and Downs". Sometimes Riley will dissect what sounds like a standard and add little twists and turns like on "With Ease". I hear some deconstructed Monk on "Palmate" and odd two handed excursions where the left hand walks as the right hand swirls in different directions at the same time. Riley even goes into some somber ballad-like territory at times, lush and contemplative. What we have here is thirty short stories and each one a small adventure of its own. - BLG
Jazz UK March/April 2007 Howard Riley's approach to solo performance occupies an interesting spot on the cusp between free improvisation and reinterpretation of traditional materials. Unlike some of his contributions to group music, the division of labour between his two hands throughout this two-CD set is fairly conventional and, while the time-feel here is often idiosyncratic, it's always clear that he's playing 'in time'. Some of the material relates closely to well-known standards so that, for instance, 'I thought About You' becomes 'Think Again' while 'Just Friends' underlies 'Still Standing'. Both opening and closing tracks are recognizably 12-bar blues and 'Sentiments' ends with a direct quote from Bill Evans. But, though listening for a chord-sequence is not the only way to hear this music, it's certainly coming from the harmonic end of Howard's spectrum. As such, some people may find it more enjoyable than they would otherwise suspect. Brian Priestley
Howard Riley Short Stories (Volume Two) SLAMCD270
Volume One (on ESProductions, recorded in 1998/99) was also a double, solo-piano album dedicated to shortish pieces, which, in Riley's own words, enable him to develop 'stories': 'the concision leads to an ever broader range of feelings, techniques and concepts'. This is certainly true of this album, recorded in 2004 and 2006: Riley is justly celebrated for his ability to spin cogent, wholly original and utterly individual improvisations from a variety of musical kernels, including melodic motifs, nervy rhythmic figures, walking basslines, even relatively conventional 'heads', and on Short Stories (Volume Two) he employs a peerless technique and an extraordinarily fertile musical imagination to produce thirty pieces (the longest just over six minutes long, the shortest just over two) that engage listeners' sensibilities like the work of few other musicians. Sometimes his extemporisations are spun off their cores like sparks from Catherine wheels; others are more ruminative, exploring themes that are only hinted at or which emerge unpredictably like the tops of submerged mountain ranges, hinting at, but never wholly displaying their underlying structure; still others are more conventional, setting cascading right-hand runs and trills against rich left-hand chords or rumbling basslines. Whatever his approach, though, Riley consistently produces the most intensely thoughtful and absorbing solo-piano music you're likely to hear; while it's not 'easy' listening (being utterly lacking in glibness or flash), it richly rewards however much attention you're willing to giveit.
Chris Parker, VortexJazz
STORIE BREVI di Cosimo Parisi Musicboom.it 12 April 2007 Il pianista inglese Howard Riley si è fatto conoscere per delle incisioni nel genere creativo inglese fin dagli inizi degli anni `70, con connazionali come Barry Guy e Tony Oxley, senza però mai abbandonare il genere mainstream o la sua passione per Thelonious Monk. Nella sua lunga carriera si sono susseguite incisioni nei due generi, sempre apprezzare da pubblico e critica, documentate su label come la Slam Productions o la Emanem. Il nuovo lavoro, come fa capire il titolo, è il seguito di un altro doppio CD, risalente al 1999. La musica, adesso, é un´ulteriore evoluzione del tema, cioè brani di breve durata, dai due ai sei minuti, in cui riesce a dire tutto quello che si è proposto, senza far rimpiangere lunghe architetture. I meccanismi dialogici fra le due mani sono ben controllati, senza che l´album perda di spontaneità. L´ascolto procede fluido, pur se bisogna dare attenzione a brani dalla pregevole fattura, abbastanza diversi per costruzione e processo esecutivo, così da dare un´interessante varietà all´insieme. Riley si presenta con un proprio tocco, una propria visione del pianoforte solo, e se un paragone va fatto, per dare un´idea a chi non lo ha ascoltato in versione "mainstream", si può citare tranquillamente il nostro Franco D´Andrea, ampiamente documentato nella veste di solista. Le storie brevi del pianista inglese sono state registrate nel 2004 e nel 2006, due sedute di registrazione che, pubblicate adesso in doppia confezione, testimoniano il work in progress di un pianista che meriterebbe una maggiore notorietà al di là della Manica.