CD Review: Howard Riley – Live With Repertoire

Howard Riley – Live with Repertoire
(NoBusiness Records NBCD 58. Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Howard Riley is a master of both free improvisation and structured music, as demonstrated in a 45-year career during which he has collaborated with people as diverse as Barry Guy, Art Themen and Jaki Byard.

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He explains in the sleevenote that he performs some gigs entirely without repertoire; some with and without, and others – as on this occasion, recorded at Embrace Arts in Leicester on 11 November 2011 – almost completely with repertoire.

I’ll try to be objective here, but I have to tell you that this is the jazz of my dreams, and I cried with pleasure when I first heard it. I listened more, for hours, and still gasped time and again at Riley’s brilliance and audacity. Throughout the CD there is a gloriously luminous, scintillating pianism, infused with logic and startling unity.

Small groups of notes, arpeggios and fragments of melody – superficially unrelated – begin the performance, then, teasing and hinting at what’s to come, gradually weave together. With grander chords and a bell-like sonority, the threads coalesce and Riley eventually slides into Monk’s Mood. Throughout the set, which includes four other compositions by Thelonious Monk, the pianist typically avoids the norm of stating the theme first.

Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are is thus prefaced by oblique passages delivered with admirable clarity, as little shoots of the song poke the surface and vie for exposure before finally breaking into flower. With lovely cadences, the early parts of Ruby My Dear are masterfully revised and at times take on a fabulous new identity. Riley’s approach – more adventurous than other distinguished Monk interpreters like Stan Tracey and Jan Kaspersen – features an innate swing and a deep feeling for the blues.

He reaches into the piano to mute the sound on short sections during Well You Needn’t, which receives an expansive exploration that veers through free-form territory but retains a structured core. Round Midnight is perhaps the “straightest” rendition on the album. Ironically, there are lulls when you can almost hear Riley thinking about what to do next. In this case, he turns them into a triumph with a magical phrase that brings it back on track for the conclusion.

This is followed by perhaps the most fulfilling standard, I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. Dense clusters become partially-disclosed ideas that wrestle with snatches of the theme; there are snippets of Everything Happens to Me and Moon River, and the tune appears fully only a minute from the end. Its joyful, slightly cheesy denouement seems inevitable and absolutely right.

Darn That Dream is more obvious but has moments of dissonance and a controlled waywardness. Johnny Green’s ubiquitous Body and Soul – so often a predictable dirge – is given a rare verve by Riley’s displaced rhythms and chord substitutions. It is the first time for ages that I have heard anyone sound as if they are actually putting their soul, via their body, into playing this.

Riley’s own compositions Now One and Now Two have motifs that sound spontaneous, and they struggle to take shape despite invigorating runs, repetition and development. Formerly incorporates elements of “stride”, references to My Old Flame and a beautiful resolution, and is amongst the most satisfying pieces on the album.

In a way, the selections in this concert are all of a kind, like a rhapsodic suite fused together by the pianist’s singular conception. Alone at the piano, Riley plays free jazz in the most literal sense: he has the imagination to create; the experience to know what works, and the skill to carry it off. Essential.

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