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Howard’s Way: Riley at 78

It happens to be Howard Riley’s birthday today (born 16th. February 1943), something that I only found out, fortuitously, on commencing this piece. He remains one of our finest-ever pianists, and has stuck with the acoustic version of the instrument: as far as I know, he has never explored the electric piano or any other electronic keyboard, unlike the late Keith Tippett, who famously played the former on his celebrated contributions to King Crimson’s output in the early 70s. Pete Lemer (born 1942) is perhaps the last surviving member of his peer group, Stan Tracey (1926-2013) was arguably the greatest pianist of the previous generation, and of the younger crop, Alexander Hawkins seems to be very convincingly stepping up to this (tem)plate.

The occasion for the blog is an hour-long conversation that I was lucky enough to have with Riley on Saturday afternoon just gone. I felt honoured to have a chance to exchange a few ideas with this great musician, whose health has not been good over the past few years, but who I did manage to catch live relatively recently (remember live gigs?) in a reconfigured Howard Riley Trio, at The Vortex a couple of years back, with Barry Guy and the Swiss percussionist Lucas Niggli. Now, Niggli is a fantastic drummer, but wouldn’t it have been great to have seen Tony Oxley in the drum seat (or even Paul Lytton), both of whom occupied that position (Lytton only on occasion) in the early iterations of the Trio, in the late 60s/early 70s? “Time slides down the wall” (a Dali-esque image that paraphrases John Cooper Clarke) might be an appropriate image for such a meeting?

Riley’s memory, whatever he might think, appeared to me to be fairly unclouded, especially as we were largely discussing events from around 50 years ago. (We were mulling over his input into the Musicians’ Cooperative, for my ongoing project on that very subject.) He clearly remains justifiably proud of the accomplishments of his classic trio, across a decade of performing and recording. (The Howard Riley Trio released around 8/9 nearly faultless albums, that mixed free improv with composed material, the latter a feature that the pianist was at pains to remind me of.) As a series, these recordings can compare to Andrew Hill’s ‘run’ of Blue Notes throughout the 60s, and those of Paul Bley’s various small groups, across six decades. 1970′s The Day Will Come, which garnered a Cook/Morton ‘crown’, is generally considered to be one of the pinnacles of British jazz (of whatever idiom), with Barry Guy on double bass duties and the grossly underrated Alan Jackson on the traps. (And there were four more decades of recordings still to come from Riley, in group and solo formats.) The Trio’s subsequent Flight, from 1971, replaces Jackson with Oxley, whp proved to be an entirely different metro(g)nomic presence.

At 78 years of age, Howard can look back at a jazz/improv life well lived, both as a recording artist and as a regular live performer. (His Trio was one of the only consistent live ‘acts’ in the early free improvisation years, and it regularly performed at many universities and colleges, in support of the many and various ‘progressive rock’ bands of the era, to which Barry Guy’s detailed diaries attest.)

I’d hence like to wish him a ‘happy birthday’, and sincerely hope that his music will become even more recognised than it is already. As with Andrew Hill, Paul Bley and (even?) Herbie Nichols, the sometimes dark, melancholic hues of his music have potentially robbed him of wider recognition. Thelonious Monk is the guiding spirit here, as it is/was for so many pianistic modernists, and this is the bar at which Howard Riley should be ultimately judged.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.