a column by
Howard Riley, 2009 ©Ray Buckland
Improvised music entails an incompleteness theorem, one that is related in spirit to Kurt Gödel's two theorems demonstrating the impossibility of constructing a complete and consistent set of mathematic axioms. There will always be statements about improvised music that are true, yet cannot be proven, many of which can be considered as precursors to axioms. For instance: Initial input in an improvisation is not determinative of the outcome. It’s the polar opposite of the Steve Allen routine where he invited audience members to select the first few notes of what he proffered would be a spontaneously composed song. Without fail, they would plunk out notes in the extreme high and low octaves, forming an untenable motive. Steverino would dutifully replicate the notes in order with feigned distress and then gleefully launch into one of his agonizingly cheesy tunes – a consistent outcome regardless of initial input. Give the same initial input to ten improvisers, however, and you’ll get ten different outcomes; and, more than likely, you’ll not only get ten even more wide-ranging explanations of why that occurred, but ten explanations of why they avoid initial input like the plague.
Where and how to begin an improvisation that prevents or at least temporarily staves off the funneling of materials towards a pinpointed outcome like a blues or “Rhythm” changes, either consciously or through what some pianists call hand memory, is the conundrum of the improviser who has mastered jazz vernaculars. They often attest to the music moving them or speaking through them so powerfully that they are relegated to the role of conduit or medium of a largely, if not entirely inexplicable – let alone controllable – process or phenomenon. This speaks to jazz’s powerful magnetism. Some respond by redoubling their efforts to distance themselves beyond its pull; in effect, they concur with the Allen audience member’s intuition that extreme initial input will result in an unusual outcome. Piles of recordings indicate this is a faulty strategy, the outcome of these gambits being as predictable as Allen’s florid ballads sprouting from randomly selected pitches octaves apart from each other.
Some musicians concede the inevitability of jazz vernacular permeating their ostensibly free improvisations. They further assert that freedom is a compromised ideal in improvised music if such materials are off limits. For them, the only sustainable strategy is to trust in the tens of thousands of hours she or he has put into the mastery of his instrument, the history and the literature and let it flow as spontaneously as possible. The resulting music may be just a reflection of extensive practice and study, but that's an arguably preferable downside to the turgidity that can ensue from a distancing strategy, some variant on Brechtian alienation, Cageian disinterest or Allenesque pretense. The upside is music you don’t hear as jazz even though the sources are plain as day.
That’s the sweet spot Howard Riley has returned to regularly since the late 1960s, when Columbia Records conferred brief celebrity upon the British pianist through two now-classic trio albums with bassist Barry Guy and the under-heralded drummer Alan Jackson, – Angle (1968-9) and The Day Will Come (‘70). His effortlessness in reaching it time and again over the succeeding decades reflects how deeply jazz was embedded into his sensibility. Like his contemporaries, the Huddersfield-raised Riley grew up influenced by American jazz icons like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk; he then came of age at an important cusp in British jazz history. When he first arrived in London fresh from university in Wales in 1966, many of the early pioneers of European improvised music with whom Riley made initial contact were still making jazz and studio gigs – Tony Oxley, a member of Riley’s trio in the early ‘70s, was then the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s. However, Riley was soon off to the US, studying jazz with Dave Baker at the University of Indiana in 1966-7. Though this detail is dutifully noted in most biographic citations, its significance is largely overlooked – Riley was not in London during the radicalizing incubation of British improvised music, a process that can be bookended by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s Challenge (1966-7; Emanem) and Karyōbin (February ’68; Chronoscope).
The contrast is stark between Riley’s Columbia albums and contemporaneous recordings like Oxley’s The Baptised Traveller (1969; Columbia) or the 1970 material included on the eponymous Incus debut of Iskra 1903, the trio of Guy, Derek Bailey and Paul Rutherford. There are tracks on both Riley Columbias that would be considered mainstream today, like the harmonically well-chiseled waltz “Exit” from Angle, where Riley seems to be all but channeling Herbie Nichols, and “Deeper,” the time-stopping ballad on The Day Will Come. However, the overall tilt of Riley’s writing on the second album is typified better on the bristling opener, “Sphere,” which juxtaposes finely calibrated, sprinting lines and robust freely improvised passages. The trio accelerated outward with the arrival of Oxley and what became known as his “rainforest percussion” on the trio’s third album, Flight (1971; FMR); his unconventional kit was replete with such found items as saucepans and motor generators, many of which were further manipulated through the use of contact mics, modulators and amps. Additionally, he brought pieces like the graphically scored “Cirrus” to the table, which abandoned conventional thematic material altogether in favor of coordinated textures that provide forward movement as well as a cloudy ambiance.
With Guy’s bass also amplified by this time, his deftness with a foot pedal allowing him to exaggerate the envelopment and decay of an already huge sound, Riley’s trio embarked on their last, most abstract period, documented on 1973’s Synopsis (issued as an Incus Lp and reissued on CD by Emanem) and Overground, a collection of ’74-5 sessions issued by Emanem in 2001. While the trio pushed ahead of the curve with Riley’s cluster-rich sweeps of the keyboard and extended forays into the piano’s interior, Oxley’s now electronics-laced avalanche of sounds, and Guy’s ability to create the illusion of more than one instrument playing through his rapid-fire, foot pedal-enhanced changes in articulation, it was at the expense of Riley’s nimble jazz-inflected themes and gorgeous ballads like “For Lesley” (from Flight). Arguably, the trio was Riley’s in little more than name only, so thoroughly collective their sound had become; Oxley’s influence seems to have extended to Riley’s use of distortive amplification on the title piece from Overground. Although its music remains hair-raisingly riveting after almost forty years, the trio ceased to be a forum where Riley tapped his jazz roots.
“Recognition,” a piece for overdubbed piano included on Overground, was an unlikely vehicle for this aspect of Riley’s sensibility, particularly since he employed electronically altered piano sounds. (He had recorded Intertwine, an album of acoustic two-piano pieces earlier in ’75 for the UK Mosaic label.) Still, compared to the album’s trio tracks, “Recognition” has a reflective temperament, one that allows his sense of structure to cleanly unfurl between the two parts, his lyricism intact. Riley later embarked upon an impressively long string of multiple piano projects – duos with Jaki Byard (‘86; Live at the Royal Festival Hall; Leo) and Keith Tippett (‘93; The Berne Concert; FMR), and a trio with Tippett and John Tilbury (2002; Another Part of the Story; Emanem) – before returning to overdubbed piano pieces on Two is One (2005; Emanem). What’s immediately striking about Two is One is the liquid hydrogen-like flow between vernaculars (snickers about chilling out aside, liquid hydrogen will actually flow through its container at super low temperatures): walking bass lines slip into the title tune to ramp up an initially limpid opening exposition; pungent pauses alternately obscure and reveal the blues tinge of “Doubling;” Monk’s “Misterioso” takes on a Silly Putty-like quality on “Osoiretsim.” Throughout this thoroughly engaging collection, Riley runs the gamut from hush-inducing fragments of melody to full-bore intensity with a fluid interaction between the two piano tracks that is frequently astounding, leaving one with the impression that he may well be his most empathetic collaborator.
Riley’s booklet note for Two in One contains part of the kernel of his creative process: “I recorded the first piano … as if it were a solo recording, then immediately added the second piano … while reacting to the playback of the first.” It was the closest Riley could get to making two spontaneous, simultaneously generated first takes alone. Riley had long been a proponent of going with first takes on his albums – every piece on Synopsis is a first take, a real measure of the trio’s close rapport. “(A)s if it were a solo recording,” may sound innocuous, but given that by 2010 a dozen Riley solo recordings had been issued – three of which were two-disc albums – his approach to solo piano is germane if not central to understanding his sensibility. (After all, no one would embark on a serious discussion about Evan Parker’s music without front-loading the solo recordings; but, if you discount compilations, reissues and albums of multi-track works, the numbers are, surprisingly, very close.) Within that body of work, the recordings that comprise Riley’s “short stories” series stand out.
Propitiously, the increasingly preservationist No Business label has issued The Complete Short Stories 1998-2010, a 6-CD box set. The collection includes Riley’s two prior 2-CD collections – Short Stories (1998-9; ESProductions) and Short Stories (volume two) (2004-6; Slam) – a CD of previously unreleased tracks from 2008, and a CD recorded for the box set that reworks the earlier material. In literature, the short story requires a specific type of craftsmanship to address the form-dictated necessities to tell the story from the middle, and to sprinkle details of the back-story through the text to explain a disarming opening or to lay the foundation for an unforeseeable ending. The real trick for the short story writer is to make the narrative stream without disruption, so that the reader does not feel the need to back-track a couple of pages to connect a detail to the unfolding story, or to ponder the connotative qualities of the texts. The big difference between the writer and the improviser is that the former has unlimited time to perfect the story; the improviser has to realize his in real time.
In Riley’s case, keeping it short was as important as telling a story. It’s perhaps a stretch to say he’s always been that way, even though there are ten or twelve tracks, respectively, on the two Columbia albums. Riley is generally expansive in other settings; but, of the first 74 performances comprising the first five CDs of the box set, only seven clock in over five minutes. Not only does Riley show exemplary rigor in maintaining this commitment to concision over a full decade, but an uncanny ability to, years later, pick up a thread of previously explored materials, and make it sound like it was cut at the same session. Byard-like mashes of old and new abound: vintage locomotion morphs into Taylorish compression and release; syncopated figures into clusters; and streamlined themes into shambling exhortations. There are appropriations of Monk and other standard repertoire that Riley makes little effort to obscure; yet, his starting points are sufficiently off-center that it takes upwards to a full chorus or more to ID the sources.
Riley sets the template aside for the summative performances from last year; it is comprised of just five performances, of which only one is less than ten minutes long. The original short stories are no longer stand-alones; instead, Riley recasts them as constituent images and between-the-lines insinuations within expanded narrative forms. Throughout the CD, a wide variety of materials – a rumbling steeped in barrelhouse; a Monkish chord; a quicksilver run through the clefs – provoke a fleeting sense of déjà vu that prompts revisiting the earlier sessions, but to no avail: There’s too much material; too many ways in which it has been reshaped over the years; even when an earlier appearance of specific material is thought to be found, close comparison yields as many differences as similarities. It’s not as if Riley plunks a few random notes and then defaults to a pre-planned routine. Then and now, Riley’s music can go anywhere at any moment and the results will make eminent sense.
References to a “body of work” have perhaps become too commonplace in the discussion of recordings of improvised music. It’s akin to another inflationary habit of commentators – the elevation of a group of musicians to working band status upon the second gig, even if it occurs years after the first. Yet, The Complete Short Stories 1998-2010 clears even conservatively set bars in this regard. This is one of the more substantial, consequential bodies of work for solo piano released in decades. You don’t need Gödel's theorems to understand that these stories will become incomplete the moment Riley reenters the studio; but, as Riley publishes new editions, the earlier stories will become even more rewarding.