|J A Z Z W O R D R E V I E W S
|Reviews that mention Howard Riley
By Ken Waxman
Serendipity not strategy led to the birth of the British label SLAM 23 years ago, which since that time, from its base in Abingdon, six miles south of Oxford, has grown to a catalogue of almost 160 releases from European, South and North American improvisers.
SLAM simply came about when journeyman multi-reedist George Haslam, who at 50 had played with everyone from ‘30s dance band trumpeter Nat Gonella to free music trombonist Paul Rutherford decided he wanted to release a disc of solo baritone saxophone improvisations. “I made a couple of LPs on Spotlite with my group, but I wanted to make a solo improvised recording and I knew this would not fit with Spotlite whose beginnings had been with Charlie Parker,” he recalls. “I spoke to Eddie Prevost [who runs the Matchless label] and others, coming to the conclusion that the best way to do this and have complete control, was to do it myself. Eddie advised me to do a CD, not an LP – which, in 1989, was excellent advice. In the event I recorded an album of solos and duos with Paul Rutherford called 1989 - and all that”.
The only idea was preserving his own work, he adds. “I had no intention of creating a new CD label. I played a concert in Oxford with [soprano saxophonist] Lol Coxhill, Paul Rutherford and [pianist] Howard Riley; Michael Gerzon made a beautiful recording and so I made the CD The Holywell Concert . Sometime later, Howard [Riley] approached me with a great recording by the quartet he co-led with [alto saxophonist] Elton Dean, asking if I would like to put it out ‘on your label’. I agreed and that was when the label was established.”
A one-man outfit, with Haslam preferring the title “sole proprietor”, SLAM soon grew exponentially as other musicians began offering him sessions to release. Not liking the clichéd “001”, his first CD was numbered “301” with a different numbering system needed for other release. UK musicians’ discs come out on the 200 series; the 400 series is for compilations; and 500 for non-UK artists. “One or two have slipped in the wrong series, purely by mistake,” he jokes.
Certainly there have been many CDs to deal with in nearly a quarter-century, during which Haslam has “built great working relations with studios, design artists, photographers, pressing and printing plants and legal advisors”. SLAM’s first non-British releases date from 1992 when Haslam was arranging a jazz festival in Oxford. Admiring the work soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, with whom he had previously played, had done with pianist Mal Waldron, he invited them to the festival. The recorded concert became Let’s Call This … Estee. Interestingly enough this was Haslam’s first meeting with Waldron, with whom he would record Waldron-Haslam in 1994, which remains one of the label’s best-selling discs.
Always a world traveler –Haslam often plays in Eastern Europe and South America, in the mid-‘90s SLAM gradually began putting out discs featuring the saxman with local players.
“Since around 2005, he elaborates, “I’ve been contacted by musicians from many different countries – always unsolicited and quite out of the blue. Where appropriate I have tried to present their music. I guess they see SLAM as active in the same area of music as themselves.”
One improviser who does is Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, whose Solo Bone CD appeared on SLAM in 2008 and who is to record a new solo trombone album for the label at the end 2012. “Solo Bone was actually my very first solo concert I gave in Switzerland. It was recorded by Swiss radio and the results turned out so well that I decided to release it. I started shopping it around, but few labels were interested.One reason was due to the difficulties to sell such a challenging product. Unfortunately few people have an interest in listening to a trombone by itself. However, George automatically showed interest and asked me to send the recording. I heard back from him a couple of weeks after that telling me he loved it and that he wanted to put it out. I am really thankful George decided to release Solo Bone and even more happy to work with him on the following one. I guess George takes some risks to release this music. It’s challenging to put out free jazz music in today's market. Fortunately we still have people like George who continuously support our community.”
All discs that appear on SLAM in what Haslam calls a “joint venture” arrangement. Although he self-finances he own releases, other avenues such as recording grants available from the Arts Council of England were discontinued years ago. “Musicians need to find a level of funding which I put towards the costs of printing, pressing, licensing etc. The musicians’ financial input is expected to be returned through gig sales and royalties. I see SLAM sitting somewhere between a ‘self release’ and a signed up contracted operation. The musicians have complete control over the music, artwork etc., but hopefully benefit from being on an established label.”
Besides Haslam, who has appeared on about 40 of the imprint’s releases, SLAM’s the musician who has appeared on the most SLAM CDS is tenor saxophonist Paul Dunmall. “I knew George in the late ‘70s early ‘80s before he set up SLAM records when I played every Sunday night at the old fire station in Oxford,” recalls Dunmall. “George said he was going to start a label and when I recorded the double CD in 1993 that became Quartet, Sextet and Trio
I asked if he would be interested in releasing it. He agreed, and basically we have had a very good working relationship since then. Now sometimes I have a recording and think it would be perfect on SLAM. I don't remember him ever turning anything down that I have offered him. He does a very thorough job and really makes a lot of effort to get releases known in the press etc. Also he makes the business side of things very clear and he is a very honest man. He has a very open policy with his ideas of the music that will work on his label. It's not just improvised music, there's a huge variety of styles although of course it is jazz based somewhere along the line. SLAM really has had a huge impact on the improvised/jazz music scene especially here in the UK. You only have to look at his vast catalogue to see what a great job he has done.”
Dunmall, who started his CDR-only DUNS Limited label in 2000, says he did so to have discs to sell at gigs. “To release a CD back then was quite expensive, so I could probably just do one CD for SLAM a year if I was lucky, but with DUNS I could put out one CDR a month. But I think it was also important to have music released on established labels like SLAM. I hope the label keeps going for years to come. It will be tough, but George is a determined guy.”
Overall SLAM releases about six or seven CDs a year, with sales ranging from those which don’t reach three figures to those which sell about 1,000 copies or so. Besides Waldron- Haslam, the label’s other best sellers are Explorations … to the Mth Degree, a duet by drummer Max Roach and Waldron; and The Vortex Tapes, recorded at that London club by Dean in group featuring among others, bassist Paul Rogers, drummer Tony Levin and trombonist Rutherford.
Due to Prévost’s prescient advice there were never any SLAM LPs issued, although there were cassettes. “Last year I looked at producing an LP”, he reveals. “But the costs were quite high. I’d like to do it, apart from anything else the scope for artwork on a 12-inch sleeve is appealing,” he says. Digital downloads of 11 out-of-stock CDs can be ordered through iTunes, Amazon.co.uk and eMusic. As well, The Middle Half by the Esmond Selwyn Hammond Organ Trio is only for sale digitally. “Esmond’s first SLAM CD, Take That, sold out completely; his second The Axe, a collection of jazz standards on solo guitar, sold very few, in spite of rave reviews around the world. Esmond sells them by the dozen on his gigs,” te saxophonist explains. “When he came along with The Middle Half I discussed this with him. He wanted to stay with the label so we went for the digital release with limited quantity pressed for promotion and gig sales. It’s an experiment, but it’s too early to judge results, sales figures take months to trickle through.”
Among the sessions scheduled for release is what Haslam calls “a great new CD by Paul Dunmall playing Coltrane compositions. We sometimes take the masters too much for granted and it is good to be reminded of their contribution to the music.”
He adds: “When a recording is offered to me for release on SLAM, I listen to it and consider is SLAM the right place for it? I don’t have a style template to which the music must fit. There is a wide range of music on the label and the SLAM slogan has always been Freedom of Music. I remember many years ago playing a concert with Lol Coxhill; at one point he was asked to play a solo piece, He said he was going to play ‘Autumn Leaves’. ‘But this is a ‘free’ gig, Lol’ someone said. ‘So,’ said Lol ‘Am I free to play what I want?’ What ties the catalogue together, I hope, is the objective of a) preserving music which may otherwise be lost and b) making this music available to a listening public. To try to ‘educate’ or lead a public would be counterproductive but the music is there to be discovered.”
--For New York City Jazz Record August 2012
August 6, 2012
The Complete Short Stories 1998-2010
NoBusiness NBCD 21-26
Hommage à moi
Loewenhertz loew 020
Roland Keijser & Raymond Strid
Umlaut UMADA 2
By Ken Waxman
Traditionally, holiday time gets people thinking about CD box sets as gifts. But merely offering multi-disc best-of collections hardly shows originality. Instead the most valuable multiple CD sets are collected because, like the talented players featured here, the musicians literally had more ideas than could be expressed on even two disc. Take Paris-based bassist Benjamin Duboc for example. Probably the busiest and most inventive player of his instrument in French improvised music circles, Primare Cantus AYLCD 098-099-100 www.ayler.com (7320470141892), a three-CD-set, highlights a different facet of his work on each side. A treat for double-bass fanatics the solo work on Disc 1, demonstrates that by also by using his voice, and extended techniques the spatial program not only expresses the fascinating bass timbres but does so in a way that the resulting sounds seem electronically processed although thoroughly acoustic. Meanwhile Disc 2 and 3 are equally excellent showing how his mature style adapts to input from radically different ensembles. Accommodating his jagged bowing and hearty string smacks to the vibrations from saxophonists Sylvain Guérineau and Jean-Luc Petit plus cunning percussion asides from Didier Lasserre, results is concentrated sounds that are as accommodating as they are opaque. The fifth untitled track for instance, perfectly matches low-pitched double bass arpeggios; while track 9 climaxes with majestic glissandi from both reedists mated with Duboc’s speedy string scrubbing that completes the initial challenge between the bassist’s strums from and subterranean snorts from Petit’s baritone plus fortissimo bites from Guérineau’s tenor. Pascal Battus’ guitar pick-up and the subtle introduction of field recordings give Disc 3 more of an electronic cast. Overall, with Sophie Agnel concentrating on fishing out unexpected note clusters from her piano’s internal string set and Christian Pruvost mostly propelling pure air from his trumpet, the thesis is timbre expansion not swing. For instance, the bassist’s concentrated ostinato underpinning Battus’ bottleneck flanges, the trumpeter’s strained grace notes and Agnel’s mallet popping on the strings creates mercurial dynamism. Additionally suggestions of billiard balls being racked or magnetic tape reels reversing provide unexpected tinctures in a sound field otherwise consisting of agitated bass licks, quivering piano strings and squealing brass. Overall, an aviary explosion from Pruvost, shaped by Agnel’s metronomic pitter-patter and Duboc’s pedal point is as exciting as anything recorded by Roy Eldridge with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown.
So are the three CDs of improvisations from the well-matched Swedish duo of veteran Roland Keijser playing a variety of conventional and folkloric reeds in conjunction with Raymond Strid’s sensitive percussion output. Recorded live in a Stockholm club Yellow Bell Umlaut UMADA 2 www.umlautrecords.com (7319200000264) offers variety of moods and stratagems. Although Keijser – on piano –and the percussionist conclude with a stately reading of Monk’s Mood that’s all tremolo key clipping and drum rim smacks, most of the 32 tunes are far from the jazz cannon. Spegelsång for example finds Keijser on stuttering saxophone and Strid’s thumping martial beat deconstructing a folk tune as its initial tone rows are played upside down in its second half. On Sohini the reedist’s tootles are from trussed metal whistles and Strid’s drags and flams could come from a djembe intonation, while Keijser uses a supple South Indian venu flute to play a variant of the Swedish Varför frågar du/Varför svarar du
backed by snare shuffles and cynmbal rattles. The most impressive display of this cross-cultural improv is evident on the title tune plus Kvällskvarpa/Dansa med moss. On the former Keijser’s Sonny Rollins-like obbligatos transmogrifies an ancient fiddle tune into near-jazz, while the latter is kept linear by Strid’s paradiddles and ruffs as mid-range clarinet glissandi diffuse from snake-charmer-like trills to splintered runs.
Someone whose cognizant of Duboc’s plus Keijser’s and Strid’s influences plus many other notated and improvised tropes is Viennese guitarist Burkhard Stangl. Obviously no sufferer from false modesty, Hommage à moi Loewenhertz loew 020 www.loewenhertz.at (no UPC) presents 25 tracks of his oeuvre from 1993 to 2009 performed by groups ranging from duos to extended ensembles. Included are electro-acoustic compositions; notated and improvised music; an extended orchestral salute to English lutenist Robert Dowland plus more contemporary influences and associates. The most affecting pieces are those created for quasi-improvised ensembles spurred by soloists such as British saxophonist John Butcher or Austrian trombonist Radu Malfatti. Konzert für Posaune und 22 Instrumente which seems to take its inspiration from Malfatti’s, microtonal vocabulary, contrasts flat-line, pressurized brass tones with an ensemble’s accelerating and vibrating polyphony. Highlights include slurred guitar fingering and the trombone’s incremental and widely spaced tongue slaps, squeaks and hollow-air vibrations. Quixotically, Concert for Saxophone and Quiet Players, featuring Butcher and a stripped-down ensemble is actually louder than the trombone concerto. Extended reed whorls encompassing tongue flutters and are contrasted with contributions from the “quiet players” which include static crackles, dial-twisting quirks and field-recorded bird chirps plus flute flutters and intermittent percussion beats. Post-modern harmonization of 17th Century vocalization and 21st Century instrumentation, My Dowland puts countertenor Jakob Huppmann’s ethereal voice in the midst of romantica string progressions plus sampled aviary chirps which become increasingly agitated although Huppmann and the string section remain languid and moderato.
Moving from orchestrations to a more singular but just as wide-ranging project is British pianist Howard Riley’s The Complete Short Stories 1998-2010 NoBusiness NBCD 21-26 www.nobusinessrecors.com (4779022072185). Extended essays in the art of solo piano, these six CDs present 74 tracks which range in length from slightly more than 1½ minutes to almost 7½ plus five novella length mediations from 2010. Someone whose interests include contemporary notated music as well as every variety of jazz Riley’s showcases are consistent as well as brief. One of the most affecting tracks is For Jaki on CD 2, a bouncy ditty with Tin Pan Alley suggestions that honors the late American pianist Jaki Byard. Similarly the title tune is kinetic as well as dramatic, equally emphasizing high-pitched tremolo lines as well as a grounded narrative. Concision on the other hand, vibrates on the percussive harmonics which can be plucked from and strummed on the piano’s internal strings, while the steady lengthening lines of Another Time show harmonic references to Lennie Tristanto-like Cool Jazz. Riley’s discursive stop-time frequently recalls Thelonious Monk as on the tellingly titled Roots and elsewhere. Nonetheless the extravagant dynamics he exhibits on The Opener are mirrored by his stentorian patterns on many other tunes, where Earl Hines-like walking bass notes and Cecil Taylor-like percussive runs vie for supremacy
Adventurous listeners on anyone’s gift list would appreciate any of these sets.
-- For Whole Note Vol. 17 #4
December 10, 2011
May 21 to 24 2008
Forty-seven years after she left her home town of Shauffchausen, Switzerland for nearby Zürich, pianist Irène Schweizer was back headlining the Schaffhauser Jazz Festival’s most ambitious program ever: performing “Radio Rondo”, a composition by bassist Barry Guy, which featured her and the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO).
In its 19th year of showcasing Swiss jazz and improvised music, Schaffhauser expanded its horizons in 2008 with the Schweizer/LJCO summit, which took place in front of a sell-out crowd in the city’s modernist Stadtheater. The evening, which included a solo piano showcase for Schweizer, also emphasized two of the fest’s overall themes: the majority of the most interesting sets included piano; and non-Swiss musicians and motifs adding needed variety to the performances
Solo, Schweizer followed a familiar – for her –discursive path, She was both meditative and Monkish, adjoining short key taps and echoing phases with thick chording, sometimes advanced with elbow prods.
Guy’s new composition, “Radio Rondo” appeared more problematic, with the pianist sometimes inaudible and the 19 musicians seemingly one rehearsal short of smoothing out the piece’s roughest edges. Episodic, the pianist’s ceremonial plinking and plucking often sent notes scurrying every which way, as the reeds shook and shrieked, the brass puffed triplets, percussionists Paul Lytton and Lucas Niggli scattered cross rhythms and bassist Barre Philips thickly double-stopped.
Sometimes Schweizer played with just reed backing; other times just with the brass. Simultaneously the sections traded riffs among themselves, at points recalling the frenzy of Energy music. Measured and functional, Schweizer’s efficient coloration brought a needed simplicity to a piece otherwise characterized by tutti crescendos.
Eventually Schweizer’s spare subtractions were echoed by others, with Niggli miming his accompaniment as he smacked an oversized gong or struck a mammoth bass drum. Veering from spiccato to legato, violinist Phil Wachsmann singly confirmed her approach. By the finale the concentrated power of varied instrumental textures was stretched into multi-hues, engulfing everyone in polyphonic exultation.
If the band seemed hesitant on “Radio Rondo”, then “Harmos”, which the LJCO first recorded in 1989, was a triumph. A longer composition that encompassed unforced swing, it featured Howard Riley – not Schweizer— on piano. Although its theme now sounds as carefully orchestrated as theatre music, upfront improvising wasn’t neglected. Among the stand-outs were frenetic brays from trombonist Johannes Bauer matched with pizzicato styling from Wachsmann; verbal shouts and double-tonguing from baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and watery bubbles and lip smacks from tubaist Per Åke Holmlander.
Cunningly utilizing the antiphonal characteristics of reeds, brass and strings, muted trumpets brushed up against Gustafsson’s spetrofluctuation; while elsewhere, the measured melancholy of Trevor Watts’ alto saxophone enlarged the theme. Eventually, following some characteristic slurping and spitting from trombonist Conrad Bauer and a blues modulation from trumpeter Rich Laughlin, tenor saxophonist Evan Parker’s quicksilver line and the violinist’s sul ponticello expansion preceded another variation on the theme which proceeded contrapuntal recapping of the head.
Smaller ensembles gave greater scope to extended pianism, as distinctive keyboardists demonstrated on subsequent evenings, where concerts took place in the more relaxed setting of the Kulturzentrum Kammgarn performance space. On the final night for example, pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Samuel Rohrer created a 21st Century take on the classic jazz piano trio. The Lausanne-born pianist used multiple strategies to subtly swing, yet manually choked his instruments internal strings, or advanced rolling low-pitched chords to skirt the expected.
Often he varied his output between overdriven note clusters and minimal chording, exposing hard-handed vamps as effectively as basement-directed runs. His invention was mirrored expertly by the others. The bassist produced thumping reverberations by jamming sticks horizontally among his strings and the drummer dangled a key chain on his drum tops or swiped at them with a cloth to control volume. Ironically Rohrer had been a flashy beat-monger when he worked with a song-oriented funk-fusion band the evening before.
Some improvisations referenced bucolic Ornette Coleman compositions, though Vallon wasn’t above repeating a note cluster for more excitement, or emphasizing the foot-stomping qualities of a tune. Exposing his romantic nature, the pianist made his recasting of Jacques Brel’s “Je Ne Sais Pas” a standout. With Moret plucking thick chords and the drummer lightly bopping his snares and shaking bells, Vallon sweetly and almost too slowly emphasizes the melody, only to quicken the funereal tempo so that variations were audible, helped by sustained soundboard resonations that echoed on top of Rohrer’s hand-drumming.
A similar partnership was exhibited by the In Transit quartet, but its adoption of total improvisation had wider tonal colors, with veteran Jürg Solothurnmann’s alto and soprano saxophones added to piano, bass and drums. Restrained mid-European Jazz, In Transit’s appeal was built on the interplay between Solothurnmann, who has explored folkloric and standard jazz linkages during his career as a musician and broadcaster in Switzerland, and the meditative positioning of American pianist Michael Jefry Stevens
With his performance related as much to sleight-of-hands as locked hands, Stevens picked up the tempo from adagio to andante almost before anyone noticed. By the time Stevens began plucking his instrument’s internal strings, bassist Daniel Studer was rolling a stick along his strings for maximum abrasion and drummer Dieter Ulrich was booting different parts of his kit – including a cowbell – to mark the tempo.
Overcoming Stevens’ pile-driving arpeggios which threaten to tip the set into a modal piano trio showcase, Solothurnmann’s body sways and noisy tongue slaps on soprano, encouraged the pianist to lay out long enough for the saxman to set up an alternative trio modal. Eventually as the bass lines scraped and tick-tock drum rhythms stabilized, saxophonist and pianist worked in double counterpoint to complete the musical circle. Solothurnmann held one long reed note and Stevens chorded consistently to reflect the set’s spacious introduction.
Even more radical restructuring of the piano role had been evident the previous evening on the same stage as Swiss-turned-New York-downtowner, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier showcased her working quintet. Taking centre stage were the strings of American violinist Mark Feldman and French cellist Vincent Courtois, on their periphery were the intelligently-utilized trap set of American Gerald Cleaver and the electronics of Japanese-American Ikue Mori.
Mori’s triggered pulsations were the only electro-acoustic interface displayed at the festival. Even here, her oscillated whooshes, pinball machine-like sizzles plus offside crackles and chirps were really landscaping then major performance components. More germane were the drummer’s contributions. Rumbling, rolling and bouncing, while using brushes more than sticks, Cleaver also produced percussion shakes by manipulating sheets of paper on top of his snares and toms.
With such unobtrusive backing, anticipation resulted while waiting to see how Courvoisier’s karate-chop-like comping or flapping note clusters could distort the violin’s and cello’s round legato tones. Answer for the first tune was a crescendo of flying agitato and staccato string-stops; for the second wailing spiccato. At the same time there was partnership among Feldman, Courtois and the pianist with several motifs reiterated from low-pitched, sul tasto cello line and piano keying or sprightly fiddle sweeps and multiple, high-frequency rolls from Courvoisier.
Much more conventional, pianist Thomas Silvestri’s quintet’s performance the next night – featuring trumpeter Michael Gassmann tenor and soprano saxophonist Ewald Hügle bassist Heiner Merk and exuberant drummer Tony Renold – unexpectedly gained a standing ovation from the crowd, plus garlands of flowers rained down upon the stage. But as liberating as the band’s note-perfect Hard Bop seemed at the time – complete with Latin percussion rhythms, biting saxophone riffs, sharp piano chording and well-modulated trumpet lines – it moved a little too cleanly – like a well-crafted Swiss watch.
Perhaps much of the audience’s enthusiasm stemmed from the placement of the Silvestri five following another of the festival’s missteps, one of a series of lachrymose female singers paired with pop-jazz accompaniment, whose night club-style stances appeared out of place.
Far more affecting vocally was Albanian-Swiss singer Elina Duni, who performed two midnight shows at the subterranean Haberhuas Kulterklub. Backed by experienced improvisers – Vallon, bassist Bänz Oester and percussionist Norbert Pfammatter, she interpreted songs in her native tongue in performances that resembled lively Middle Eastern dance music – encompassing her variation of belly dancing-Bollywood undulations – or as elongated, chanted folk tales. Although clearly in charge – stopping-and-starting the band with stomping of her bare feet – Duni was adaptable enough to give the trio its instrumental freedom. At one juncture within a complicated formulation that encompassed low-frequency piano chords, a waking bass line and the drummer whacking his hi-hat and popping his snares, she added a talking-and-shouting interpolation that resembled an alto saxophone solo.
-- For MusicWorks Issue #102
November 20, 2008
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)
March 11, 2008
Four in the afternoon
HOWARD RILEY/LOL COXHILL
SLAM CD 249
One of the significant British musicians involved in the transition of the sound from jazz to Free Jazz to Free Improv, and all its variations, pianist Howard Riley has a vastly lower profile than many of his compatriots.
The 60-year-old pianist, who has taught at the Guildhall School of Music and Londons Goldsmiths College since the late 1960s, may be in fans consciousness for his work in the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) or for his early trio with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Tony Oxley. Yet besides that he has led a band with altoist Elton Dean and recorded scads of discs, solo and with partners like American pianist Jaki Byard.
Celebrity may be fickle, but Rileys reputation as a musicians musician is brought into clearer focus on two recent discs featuring him in the company of old associates. FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON gives the pianist free reign in a band featuring veteran saxophonist Larry Stabbins, 53, best-known for his pop/jazz band Working Week, but whose freer associations included pianist Keith Tippetts big bands, a trio with drummer Louis Moholo and Mama Lapato with bassist Tony Wren. Wren, 55, a founding member of the London Musicians Collective, who has been involved with free music since the later 1960s is present here as well, as is youngun, percussionist Mark Sanders, who has played with everyone on the British scene from Evan Parker to John Butcher.
DUOLOGY, as the title makes clear, is a two-man meeting from a few months later, featuring Riley matching wits with soprano saxist Lol Coxhill. Coxhill, 71, who may be BritImprovs most versatile player, has a playing history that encompasses everything from memberships in early Beat group and big dance bands to punk rock gigs and improvisations with guitarist Derek Bailey.
In the quartet formation, some of the pianists most imposing playing comes on Where are the snows
and Rough crossing. The latter, which is also one of the few places Wrens strumming bass work has proper presence, frames Rileys keyboard in arco rubs and what sounds like Sanders manipulating the claves. With an expansive, sliding tone he works his way allegro up the scale until it sounds like two pianists collaborating harmonically. Feathery chording arises from one hand and a complete secondary, but complementary melody from the other. Double tonguing, Stabbins on soprano then enters, chirping out fast runs which turn to a sepulchral serpentine tone to meet the pianists splashing runs. His radiating arpeggios, spread still wider with pedal pressure, convinces the saxman to introduce some novel Evan Parker-like wiggles. As Stabbins mouse-squeaks his output down to silence, Sanders kit rumbles and pinpoints sections with rim shots.
No mere celebration of yesteryear, the balladic snows
feature allegro pianisms and sparkling Pan-flute-like tones, with both soprano sax and piano chasing each others tails like small pooches. As Riley plays a seesaw rhythm in a more conventional jazzy style, Stabbins responds with trilling double tonguing so that the vibrations from each note sound again and again. Understated, Sanders hi-hat whacks and drum rolls reference modern jazz as well.
Transcension, which give you an idea what the 1963 John Coltrane quartet would have sounded like with Rachmanioff in McCoy Tyners seat, features thick, high frequency chording on Rileys part which meet shrilling multiphonics from Stabbins that rebound into false registers. Meanwhile the drummer drives his cymbals and snare to their limits. The pianists seemingly endless supply of energy serves him well, as his pounding arpeggios meet Sanders efforts and Stabbins piercing cries.
Elsewhere the pianist constructs single-note moves as if he playing chess, coming up with sweeping piano chords or doubled tremolos, depending on whether the saxman is in full Albert Ayler Free Jazz mode or turning out low energy tenor sax blowing as if he was a POMO Stan Getz. Rileys bebop underlay serves him well in the second situation, even if the reedists well modulated, mid-range tones become spikier and more staccato and introduce ear-splitting freak notes. Twinkling right handed arpeggios matched with comprehensive chordal harmonies then cause Stabbins to downpedal his shrieks to trills.
Its almost the same on Game of two halves -- the longest track at 17 minutes plus -- where Stabbins contributions range from chesty honks to disconnected renal squeaks, smears and runs. Flashing arpeggios, extended contrasting dynamics and circular high frequency cadenzas from the piano mold the instant composition into a whole, leaving space for cross-metered drumming and barely audible arco bass scratches.
Holding his own in the company of three old friends could almost be heard as Rileys preliminary bout for a mano-à-mano face-off with Coxhill, whose 50 plus years of playing experience make the pianist appear a tyro. Not that theres any animosity between the two, who have worked occasionally as a duo for more than a quarter century. Its just that Riley must play chameleon piano to match Coxhills Zelig-like soprano saxophone.
Take the almost 18 minutes of Two Timing, which begins with the reedist vibrating shrill tones as if his axe possessed an electronic attachment, while Riley runs adagio through the pianos insides. The pianists low frequency fantasia expands into what could be the sound of an army of elves traipsing over the treble keys as Coxhill alternately blows raspberries from his reed or pumps honks from deep within his bow. Soon waterfalls of notes seep across the key bed, with pedal work extending the tones still more. Coxhills tone becomes higher and more grating in screech mode, as Riley creates a pedal point bottom while commenting cross-handed on the others exposition. When the saxman turns to absolute split tones, including duck quacks, cries and a section where he holds onto one note for an ear-splitting half-minute or so, the pianist flashes arpeggios that head into low frequency unfolding harmonies.
And so it goes. Throughout, each appears to be playing different, intersecting melodies without contact, until midway through Coxhill unveils a phrase thats echoed by Riley. Although the sorpranoist does reference Middle-Eastern musette-like tones, slurred fingering and twittering freak notes and the keyboardist responds with full European classical techniques, you sense a underlying concordance. By the end there are intimations that the two are skirting half-forgotten Broadway show tunes and Riley is torquing his notes so that theres the suggestion of stride piano downbeats. Finally, recalling the beginning, Coxhill reintroduces slurred twittering and Riley dampens the strings as he pummels them with his other hand.
Despite their status as card-carrying avant-gardists, both players have enough grounding in the jazz tradition that other mainstream implications peep out among their experimentation. On Exemplary, for instance, you hear both feral cries from Coxhills slurred trills and a glissando that appear to have migrated over from Rhapsody In Blue. Broom Dust may depend on the contrasting dynamics of light-fingered, right hand work from Riley, but he gets into a mainstream mode when Coxhill changes from a smeary, mid-tempo line with ney-like qualities to spraying out a section thats seems to want to be Rock Around The Clock.
Say No begins with what sounds like Riley sounding out a syncopated Three Blind Mice, emphasizing different note clusters, then operating cross handed, with digits seemingly leaping into forgotten corners, spearing a single note here-and-there, then bringing them forth for individual examination. Coxhills rasping kazoo sound from his sax also has off-kilter Swing underpinning. Listen carefully enough and youll likely hear the shades of boppers Sonny Stitt on sax and Barry Harris on piano hovering in the improvisations.
The autumnal creativity of the likes of Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins should long ago have put to rest the shibboleth that jazz is a young persons art. Rileys cascading triple glisses and full-fledged, double-timed triple forte expositions, plus Coxhills investigations of bow-ratting claxon calls power on one hand and entry into traffic policemans reed whistle territory on the other, proves that non-traditional expansion of the language is possible in improv despite moving into pensionable territory. So does the work of the other slightly younger -- and in Sanders case very much younger -- musicians on the other disc.
Both overlong -- more than 72 minutes each -- CDs offer amply opportunity to examine this phenomenon, and to discover or rediscover Rileys talents.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Four: 1. A soft day 2. Game of two halves 3. Where are the snows... 4. Rough crossing 5. Blue dark 6. Embarrassment of witches 7. Transcension
Personnel: Four: Larry Stabbins (soprano and tenor saxophones); Howard Riley (piano); Tony Wren (bass); Mark Sanders (percussion)
Track Listing: Duology: 1. Breaking the habit 2. Solo for Lol 3. Exemplary 4. Blankets 5. Say yes 6. Say no 7. Big pond 8. Eat my hat 9.Two timing 10. Hearing is believing 11. Duology 12. Broom dust
Personnel: Duology: Lol Coxhill (soprano saxophone); Howard Riley (piano)
November 3, 2003