Five solo recordings of Howard Riley

Five solo recordings of Howard Riley

The English composer Harrison Birtwistle has a piece called Endless Parade. It attempts to capture on the concert stage the experience of hearing a marching band moving through the streets of an Italian hill town: now audible, now muffled by distance and intervening structures, now loud and near at hand, now clashing with another band marking the same gala day. I always think of Howard Riley when I hear Endless Parade, and I always think of Endless Parade when I listen to Howard Riley, and I do the latter much more often.

    So why this apparently random connection? They’re not even both Yorkshire born. Sir Harrison hails from Accrington in Lancashire, which represents a pretty broad cultural difference, but only if you’re an Englishman. It’s more that Riley’s Huddersfield is an Italian hill town, or it would be if it were situated in Italy rather than the West Riding. It’s a place where music echoes constantly and eclectically. The band tradition remains strong there, as does choral singing. The great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók – who more than once visited Britain on the kind of lonely solo tour that a jazz pianist would readily recognise – said that Huddersfield audiences were among the most musically literate and appreciative that he met anywhere in Europe. To this day, the city hosts an innovative and highly eclectic annual festival of new music, at and around which pretty much anything can be expected. John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen all visited during the festival’s heyday. Stockhausen took over a sports centre, Boulez and Messiaen were appalled at the food, a feeling they shared with Bartók, who enjoyed the marmalade, but not much else. Cage made his own arrangements and foraged for mushrooms in the surrounding hills.

     There’s another, perhaps more metaphorical reason why Riley and the acoustic landscape of Endless Parade seem to belong together. It has to do with the way the career has unfolded and how it has been documented. British improvisers of Riley’s generation routinely complain that they are warmly hailed for work that was made and released forty years ago, while struggling to get support for new compositions, current bands and tours, new-minted recordings. And it is true that in many cases the back catalogue seems more prominent than the recent work.

     In Riley’s case, though, the steady re-emergence of what commercially-minded people call “the back catalogue” has happened absolutely in line with a rich vein of new work. At almost every stage of Riley’s more recent career, a new recording, heard up close, pristinely engineered and mastered, could be heard in the apparently remote context of something he made decades earlier, but only now reappearing from neglectful dust. It is as if the sounds of the foreground are overlaid with more distant effects, precisely the kind of aural experience that Birtwistle was searching for in his richly textured ensemble and his conceptual colonnades, alleys and open squares.

     Riley’s first ever LP, produced in 1967 in a now ridiculously collectable edition of just 99, has been reissued a couple of times down the years, most recently with the addition of two even older tracks that find the 17 year old pianist playing standards (“Just One Of Those Things” and “September In The Rain”, just for the record) with local musicians. Something of the same is happening here, with the inclusion of Fingerprints, a cassette-only recording from , another super-rarity that comes forward out of the past as if to change our present perception of what Howard Riley is, and what he does.

     Except it doesn’t quite happen that way with this particular musician. Chronology doesn’t seem to matter much in Riley’s work. Which means that its familiar attendant, “development” – or if you’re posing as particularly thoughtful, “evolution” – doesn’t quite matter, either. Critics like a career to “develop”. They’re natural Whigs, who think that each successive stage in an artist’s work represents a refinement and a rising up the ladder of ambition. They’ll happy acknowledge moments of consolidation, and sometimes will sternly point to signs of regression or backsliding, but the critical norm is developmental. This is strange, given that most genuinely creative careers, as opposed to those of minor talents who merely surf on fashion and experiment, are concerned with the presentation under different dispensations and guises of just one or two large ideas, which remain essentially unchanged. Artists who appear to change obsessively – Picasso, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Prince – very often don’t change much at all, other than the outward clothing of their core ideas.

     It seems to me self-evident that Howard Riley falls into this category, and that in terms of his musical importance belongs naturally in the highest company. Unlike many of his contemporaries who struggle to maintain a present-tense creative career, he has continued to perform and to record at the highest level. Recent recordings from Lincoln Cathedral and, on No Business, from Vilnius have confirmed an artist who is at the peak of his creative powers, still walking an indefinable line between jazz and other musics, between composition and free (whatever that distinction means), but always with a strong sense of musical architecture, even in his most unfettered performances

     The fact that Riley uses the metaphor of “short stories” and “long stories” as a convenient way of categorising his work is significant. He deals with a highly refined form of expressive narrative. It has direction. It has depth. It has that indefinable thing that is supposed to separate the modern novel from the more two-dimensional forms of romance: it has “roundness”. At no time, do we feel that Riley is in a Bill Evans-like “state of grace”, channelling some cosmic message through the piano. Nor does he indulge in the excruciations of a Keith Jarrett solo performance, where the real meaning of that apparently insulting word becomes obvious. He doesn’t seem to expose himself in the music, either to the audience, or to God. It is, in the proper sense, secular music, made by a man who understands musical technics as well as anyone of his generation – he is among the most classically trained of the British free people – and who comes from a part of the world where manufacture is a matter of pride before it is a matter of profit. Or was. For me, Riley speaks of a world in which making and doing, and sometimes making do, are of paramount importance. This is a quality in his work that has never changed. Listening to his two classic albums for CBS, 1969’s Angle and 1970s The Day Will Come (these from a time when big corporations sustained enough generous slack for genuinely creative work to be done off the balance sheet), and the sense already is of music that is not just committed and in its way passionate, but resolutely well-made.

     The “well-made story” was a literary shibboleth for generations. It meant that a narrative had to have setting, characters, robust storylining, unexpected turns and a definite sense of ending. My standard test for any piece of music, perhaps perversely, is how it ends, or whether it ends. I once came out of a pop concert with a girlfriend I was trying to keep on-side – otherwise I wouldn’t have been there – and said “I enjoyed that”. “No”, she said, “you’re just glad it’s over.” And she was right. That isn’t what I mean here. We’ve all clapped deliriously at the end of free-improvisation events because there was a moment, somewhere in the middle, when it wasn’t clear that it would ever end and there seemed no way of stopping it, short of a fire alarm.

     Contrast that with any of the performances by Howard Riley included in this set. Each has a clear and distinct sense of ending, not in the matter of a key centre that must be adhered to and navigated. Not in the sense of a great resonant cadence. Just an awareness that a journey has been made and a destination reached. not final, not permanent, not metaphysical, but definite. Most improvisers will tell you that the main problematic for their musical language is not where to start, but how to end. There is little more merit in the limping conclusion to a “free” improvisation that has gone on too long and too uncomprehendingly than there is to the out-groove churn of a pop record that fades rather than finishing.

     There’s still debate about where and when and why free jazz in Britain turned into free music or free improvisation. Working somewhat apart from the fixed structures of that movement, though collaborating at some time or other with most of its members, and by no means an isolated figure, Riley seemed to find his own solutions. It’s generally understood, though rarely given any supporting detail, that Riley retains more jazz or more of a jazz “feel” in his work than other artists. This may have something to do with the piano, or the pianos plural, on which he has played. Cecil Taylor retains a great deal of jazz in his musical language, too. Riley’s lifelong engineering of bridges between repertory jazz forms and freer forms of improvisation have often been reviewed in terms of the starting and finishing points, as if the bridge itself between “jazz” and “free” were not of interest or importance. When, of course, it is the bridge we should mainly be interested in, not its signposts.

     Like Evans, Riley has worked successfully in larger and smaller groups, but with a concentration of effort in trio and solo performance. Like Evans, too, he has experimented with the possibilities of overdubbing separate parts, a machine-aided dialogue with the self that feeds back into the real-time performances documented here in quite explicit ways. Riley’s awareness of where a second line might fit, where a harmonic strut or support might be added or taken away is always part of the drama of his playing. This is music that could only have been conceived by a man who grew up in a proud industrial town; not because the music is mechanical or motoric or locked-in, but because its movements are elegantly functional, the parts fitting together in a single complex.

     He is not alone in having sustained a long career. The difference between Howard Riley and many, perhaps most, of his peers, is that the “journey” is so uncliched and individual. There’s no air of plodding pilgrimage or of self-regardant “exploration”. If it makes sense to listen to recordings from 1976 and 1980, from 1976 and 1980, alongside performances from the present decade, made at home, then that’s because Riley has remained essentially the same kind of artist throughout that period, pursuing his ideas and making his forms with the same attention and application. The late Susan Sontag used to say that we can usually infer the life from the work, but we can never know the work from the life, and that’s true in trumps here. To say that he has not “developed” is not to say that has not changed, because of course he has. The young man has energies the older man perhaps no longer feels any need of. The older man is perhaps further from any colouration of that other critical staple, artistic influence, even if the spirits of Thelonious Monk and Jaki Byard, Bud Powell and compatriots as various as Stan Tracey and Keith Tippett, still visit his playing from time to time. He has changed and he has remained determinedly the same. He delivers not works, but work, which is a very different thing. There is no drab emphasis on process, but we are never far from the realisation that here is a man interacting with a gloriously complex machine and with a vast weight of knowledge and experience behind the encounter.

     We hear him near at hand, and far off; on good pianos and not so good, playing some recognisable melodies and some that did not exist until a moment ago. Sometimes things intervene and interpose, and we don’t hear him for a while, or forget to listen out for him, and there he is back again, nearby and strong and instantly recognisable, not from “style” but from the quality of craft. The same, but ever-moving. An endless parade.