Film reviews

‘Howard Riley – Cheerfully Beyond Category’ (London premiere at Vortex, 4 Sep.)

Howard Riley – Cheerfully Beyond Category

(Film by Cath Longbottom. Film review by Duncan Heining)

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Howard Riley being interviewed in Howard Riley – Cheerfully Beyond Category. Still from film courtesy of Cath Longbottom

(NB: Booking link for London Premiere below)

Award-winning editor and filmmaker Cath Longbottom’s film of Howard Riley is a delight. Just thirty minutes in length, it succeeds in capturing something of the essence of this remarkable musician and conveying what it is that makes his work so special. One could talk for hours about his wonderfully sensitive, pianistic touch at the keyboard or of how his improvisations continually surprise and yet somehow sound so complete and coherent. To listen to Howard Riley is to be drawn into his sound world and he is no less eloquent in conversation.

Some years ago I was asked to review The Complete Short Stories 1998-2010 (NoBusiness Records 2011), a six CD boxset of his solo improvisations. The prospect of listening to and assessing so vast a collection might seem daunting. In Riley’s case, it was a labour of love. I listened to the set pretty much straight through. It was like one of those rare books that you could not put down and, when finally forced to do so, you resent being dragged out of that world of the imagination.

As well as insightful interviews with Riley himself, the film features extracts from a concert with fellow pianist and friend, Keith Tippett at the Pizza Express in 2016 and a trio performance at the Vortex with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Lucas Niggli. These snippets leave one wanting more but that is a sign of a good film.

At one point in the film, Riley talks about the session with Guy and Niggli, almost offering a summation of his art of surprise,

“We ran through the pieces this afternoon but always on the understanding that if something develops you went along with it. My pieces are written like that. You can take them fairly straight or you can distort them a little. So, we were distorting quite a lot tonight, when we got into it.”

The London premiere of “Howard Riley – Cheerfully Beyond Category” at the Vortex on Sunday, 4th September will also feature a separate film of Riley and Tippett’s 2016 concert. Both pianists played brief sets separately and then in duo at the end. Longbottom’s second film is of their duo.  I was present that night and reviewing the gig for All About Jazz. It was an evening of contrasts but also of a meeting of minds. As I wrote at the time,

“If Tippett builds from the foundations upwards, the sense with Riley is more forensic. He works from the outside of each idea, exploring ever deeper, peeling back layer after layer, drawing out every possible nuance of his songs. Inevitably, there are blues to be revealed in all their primal glory and Ellington and Monk, too. But all has been absorbed. He closes with “Round Midnight,” a performance so beautifully weighted and measured to make grown men cry into their Peroni.”

Sadly, Keith Tippett is no longer with us – another example of God taking the best from us, while the Devil fails to hold his end up. Thankfully, Howard – despite suffering from Parkinson’s Disease – is still here and playing, a triumph of the will in itself. Cath Longbottom’s twin films do more than preserve the music of two titans of improvised music and jazz, though that would be achievement enough. She reveals both Riley the man and Riley the musician. He is quietly spoken, reflective and totally immersed in his art but, unusually, amongst musicians capable of talking about it elegantly and eloquently. That comment, of course, applies with equal force to a Howard Riley performance.


As well as these two films, NoBusiness Records have released Journal Four, a CD of the full concert. All in all, this is an embarrassment of riches for fans of Riley – and Tippett. I will simply say that the music is a tour de force and the duo set – 45 minutes in length – a masterclass of empathic music-making. If there is also an undoubted sadness in watching and hearing these two musicians together – Keith Tippett, so engaged and present in the moment – it is a powerful reminder of the healing power of this music.  Copies of Howard Riley/Keith Tippett Journal Four will be available at the screening of “Howard Riley – Cheerfully Beyond Category”. 

NOTE: The London Premiere of Howard Riley – Cheerfully Beyond Category will be at the Vortex on Sunday 4 September – booking link below. The full programme for the event is:

  • 3.15pm – Documentary film screening “Howard Riley – Cheerfully beyond category”
  • 3.45pm – Q&A with director Cath Longbottom
  • 4.20pm – Concert film – “A Conversation Between Two Pianos” (film of 2016 concert, see text of film review. )

LINKS: Booking link for 4 September at the Vortex

Journal Four on Bandcamp


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