CD Review: Howard Riley – The Complete Short Stories 1998–2010

Howard Riley – The Complete Short Stories 1998–2010
(NoBusiness Records NBCD 21–26. CD Review by Chris Parker)

A six-CD set, The Complete Short Stories 1998–2010 documents what Howard Riley himself terms ‘a project, a one-off conceptual idea that exists on disc only’: 61 solo-piano pieces recorded between 1998 and 2006 and released as Short Stories (ESP) and Short Stories Vol. 2 (Slam); 13 pieces from a previously unreleased 2008 session (CD 5); and (CD 6) five longer, extended-form pieces taken from material recorded in the existing sessions.

Brian Morton, in his characteristically erudite, informative and perceptive sleevenotes, has almost rendered further commentary redundant, but it might be of interest to reproduce here, instead of a conventional review, Riley’s own comments on his approach to solo playing, recorded at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in May, 1989. He is actually talking about an earlier project, Imprints, but everything he says applies, mutatis mutandis, to Short Stories:

I’ve been doing a series of solo-piano pieces since the early 1970s and the idea of them is that they’re largely improvised, but each also has a written element that indicates very specific areas of playing. Having said that, usually, they’re not structured: they have a rhythm, or perhaps an idea, a motif, even something that isn’t written down.

For example, in ‘Imprints 24’, I just had the idea of starting out playing, with both hands, straight crotchets, 1-2-3-4 together, then gradually breaking that pattern up but retaining the walking-bass left hand and breaking it up in the right hand, then coming back to that idea at the top of the piano at the end, while letting it go where it wants to go in between. It’s just material that sets up ideas for me to play – because one of the problems of solo playing is the obvious one: you’re on your own.

When I play with groups, most of them (except the special case, the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, it being a large band) are very free groups, without written material, and we don’t rehearse, we just go and play. That context obviously relies on people playing together and the feeling between them.

When you’re solo, as I say, you’re on your own, so these pieces give me a direction. Occasionally, I’ll just sit down and play – I’m quite happy doing that, but I find that if I’m doing a broadcast or concert, these pieces are useful because they give me a definite direction, material to work from. So, ’17’ has sixteen bars of written stuff at the beginning, then I improvise on that, then I gradually come back and play it again at the end. ’18’ has a written theme which appears only at the end, because although I’ve written it out, I feel free to alter it on the spot, so it appears in many different ways at the end. I use the motifs in the improvising, but without stating it at the beginning. So that’s the germ of an idea that’s in my head all the time I’m playing the piece.

In the last ten or fifteen years, I’ve found myself in the solo work using my whole background in jazz, from the very early days in the 1950s – chord changes, bebop – then into free (what happens if you don’t use chord changes) in the 1960s. My solo playing pulls together all those things and makes them work for me, developing a vocabulary out of all that knowledge I’ve accumulated. I feel that learning something and then just throwing it away is a bit stupid, really, and I find that whenever I concentrate on a specific area of playing, there are things in there that I can use in my own playing.

Obviously, you’ll reject most of it, but 5 per cent you can use, and so it’s a question of accumulating those things so that at any given point in your playing you’re going to get a sum of all that knowledge. So now I can accommodate tonality, atonality, different textures at the piano – more traditional textures coexisting with more modern stuff – and it all fits together quite nicely, with no strain. That’s come out in my playing. It’s also an attitude that comes out in your playing: being open, letting things influence you.


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