At the age of twelve it was abundantly clear that Tim Richards had both a passion and an aptitude for the piano. But, as he explained to me when I met him last month to talk about his new trio CD “Shapeshifting” and forthcoming UK tour, he had also become aware that he wasn’t cut out to be a classical pianist. He can still remember the moment of realisation all too clearly:
“I was doing a school concert, playing a Scarlatti sonata, and I had a mental blank in the middle. Everything went white. I knew that the worst thing I could do was to stop. I managed to come out of, and get back into the Scarlatti – after a chunk of what definitely wasn’t Scarlatti! I’m sure some people noticed… my teacher certainly did. I realised at that point that it was easier for me to improvise than to play what was on the page!”
That classical teacher who had started him off with the piano was an imposing figure. Carola Grindea, originally from the Eastern part of Romania, later had a distinguished career as professor at Guildhall School. “But she had very little interest in jazz”, remembers Richards. So what happened next? “From the age of twelve or thirteen… basically… I started teaching myself. You couldn’t study, there weren’t many jazz tuition books around either. I remember what it was like being completely in the dark.”
That personal voyage of discovery set him on the path to becoming a jazz musician, but also sowed the seeds for his highly influential career as one of the UK’s best-known jazz educators. Richards is the author of four successful and acclaimed tutor books. His first book for Schott Music, “Improvising Blues Piano” was published in 1997, and is now in its sixth reprint. Combined with its sequel “Exploring Jazz Piano (Vols 1 and 2)”, the three books have a staggering 800 musical examples. They take the pianist from beginner level through to advanced. “They’re not like other books. They’re not theory books, although they have theory in them. They have play-along CDs, quite a bit of history, photos… In a way they do everything.” says Richards. Just out is his collaboration with pianist John Crawford – “Exploring Latin Piano” – also published by Schott, in the same format as the other books.
Richards is also a composer. The jazz piano books contain no fewer than fifty-six of Richards’ original compositions. He has run larger ensembles – Spirit Level and Great Spirit – and it was the quality of his writing which attracted many of the UK’s first-call jazz players to perform and tour with him, such as Peter King, Jason Yarde, Tony Kofi, Gilad Atzmon and many others. In recent times Richards has deliberately sought to broaden his palette as a composer. He recently spent two years studying for a Masters degree in composition at Trinity College of Music, and has received a number of commissions for through-composed music.
So, I asked him, does the teacher ever stop learning? “I had a desire to expand my activity, and can also see that the study will change my writing,” he says. His new CD “Shapeshifting”, his third piano trio album for 33 Records (but the first since 2003), contains four originals as well several pieces by other composers – Richards has thought in depth about the styles, the voices, the heritage, the touch of pianists. “It is a very pianistic trio,” he says.
The track on “Shapeshifting” which shows Richards reaching out in a new direction most clearly is “Seraglio”, the longest of the twelve tracks. The title is a reference to an (imagined) Turkish palace. The piece gives a prominent role to the dark-toned bowed bass of Dominic Howles, and Richards’ many-layered piano playing has a clear nod to classical composers such as Nancarrow and Ligeti.
If “Seraglio” represents a new and intriguing direction, Richards has clear ideas about the ground he occupies in the America-versus-Europe debate in jazz. He prefers to stay close to the earthy roots of the music: ”When I first starting getting interested in jazz I was fascinated by blues musicians Muddy Waters and his pianist Otis Spann, as well as players like Thelonious Monk, and that has stayed with me. A lot of European musicians are trying to distance themselves from that the whole swing groove aesthetic. The blues inflection is what makes the trio sound a bit different from many other trios out there.” A groove-laden track such as Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia”, or Richards’ own own Horace Silver-ish “The Message” kicks that heritage alive. Tracks like these also feature the propulsive and creative drumming of the newest member of the trio, Jeff Lardner, who seems just as much at home in the trio context as he is in the packed stadia where he appears in one of his other roles, as the drummer in Van Morrison‘s band. .
When Richards talks about the pianists who are inspiration and role models, it was names like those of Hampton Hawes and Wynton Kelly which cropped up most frequently. Both Hawes and Kelly were pianists who, like Richards, showed their prowess at an early age and were essentially self-taught.
Richards, then, is an artist still developing, still looking for new possibilities and modes of expression. The words of Erroll Garner ring so true: “Every day when I sit down to play, I learn something new.”
The Tim Richards Trio are on tour, with a London date at Jazz Cafe Posk on February 26th. Full tour dates are here