Howard Riley | Live With Repertoire | No Business Records

Howard Riley – piano

Recorded in Concert for Leicester Jazz House at Embrance Arts, Leicester on 11th November 2011. Digital recording by Chris Trent. Tracks 4, 6, 9 and 12 by Howard Riley (PRS / MCPS) / all other tracks are ‘standards’ and / or Thelonious Monk compositions. Mixed by Alex Bonney and Alexander Hawkins. Mastered by Arūnas Zujus at MAMAstudios. Design by Oskaras Anosovas. Produced by Danas Mikailionis. Co-producer – Valerij Anosov

Tracklist: 1. Monk’s Mood 4’50” 2. Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are 3’45” 3. Darn That Dream 4’54” 4. Now One 3’07” 5. Ruby, My Dear 4’30” 6. Now Two 3’11” 7. Round Midnight 6’41” 8. I’m Getting Sentimental Over You 5’42” 9. Formerly 4’15” 10. Body And Soul 6’21” 11. Well You Needn’t 5’37” 12. Singing Off 1’12”

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British pianist Howard Riley’s

previous album on No Business, the monumental The Complete Short Stories: 1998-2010 (2011), was a revelation to many, collecting together 6 CDs of stunning aphoristic improvisations. However on Live With Repertoire, as the title suggests, the pianist concentrates primarily on the songbook, particularly Monk, one of his touchstones along with Ellington. In the liners Riley explains that his working method sees him treat a gig as either with or without repertoire, depending on audience, ambience and how he feels. Something was clearly in the air in Leicester in November 2011 as the pianist generates an enthralling set from well-used materials, all captured in sparkling sound.

Even when standards provide the basis for a piece, Riley adopts a variety of approaches, sometimes cloaking accustomed melodies in swathes of embellishment as is the case with “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” while at others giving more transparent readings such as “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are,” and all stations in between. Often his style tends towards the discursive, even florid on occasion. He rarely emphasises the rhythmic aspects of a tune, preferring rubato asides and tangential diversions, so the brief passages of time, like the stride feel at the conclusion of his own “Formerly” stand out when they occur.

Of the other three originals, “Now One” creates staccato momentum in octaves before deploying a tolling single keystroke, while the rippling atonality of “Now Two” closes with a lovely section similarly repeating what sounds like a purposely distorted note. “Monk’s Mood” boasts a rolling bluesy undercurrent, while on “‘Round Midnight” Riley subtly amends the familiar theme with dissonances Monk would have been sure to appreciate. The penultimate “Well You Needn’t” forms one of the highlights, as a figure on dampened keys acts as a recurring motif during a freeform excursion, with the well-known tune blossoming only at the very end. This is the first recording to be released since Riley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It goes without saying that no indication of that infirmity surfaces here. We should treasure Riley’s artistry while we still can. — John Sharpe

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3 thoughts on “Howard Riley | Live With Repertoire | No Business Records

  1. It’s great to hear a player like Howard Riley, pianist-artist of real stature, in the course of doing these reviews. Here’s somebody I knew little of before his CD (No Business NBCD 58) Live with Repertoire. I am very glad to hear him in depth, inspired as he was on this release. It was recorded live before an audience. As Howard explains, his gigs he approaches in one of three ways, with spontaneous freedom, with that and some compositional guideposts, or “with repertoire,” that is, centered around songs and compositions.

    The performance at hand is almost entirely of the latter sort. This is a date where Howard digs into the music by and/or associated with the evergreen Thelonious Monk. So we get “Well You Needn’t” but also “Darn that Dream” and a bunch of others, as well as Howard getting in some improvisatory and compositional moments of his own where he comments on it all.

    What’s so nice to hear is the way Riley channels the Monk sensibility, the wonderful percussiveness, the adventures in harmony, the forward moving lines, all that went into Monk’s playing. Howard, most importantly, makes something of it that is Howard Riley. It’s more, then, than channeling. It’s a remaking.

    And it gives you an idea of how much Howard Riley appreciates, loves and has grown through the Monk way, but also how much Howard does it all by being Howard. There is originality in there. It’s very much a beautiful experience digging on this album.

    Monk! Howard Riley! Put yourself inside the piano and enjoy.

  2. 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.

    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.

  3. On the one hand NoBusiness is a label that features younger or less known artists like YAPP and Steven Lugerner but also established ones like Kidd Jordan, John Tchicai, Joëlle Léandre or Howard Riley, with whom they produced the fantastic double album “Solo in Vilnius”. Riley is one of the great European first generation free jazz pianists like Fred VanHove, Misha Mengelberg, Keith Tippett or Alexander von Schlippenbach. With the latter he shares his love for Thelonious Monk and classic jazz tunes in general. In 1993 he has released “Beyond Category”, a CD with standards by Duke Ellington and Monk, and there is also the double CD “The Monk and Ellington Sessions”.

    Riley’s music has often been called reserved and constructivist, maybe because of his classical avant-garde background. However, his approach is by no means unemotional, there is a very beautiful lyricism in his style.

    On “Live with Repertoire” you can see this if you compare his version of “Round Midnight” with the one by Miles Davis, whose interpretation of the classic Monk tune sounds like a soundtrack to a French film noir in which the protagonist strolls through a deserted Paris, or with the one by Stan Getz, who seems to illustrate a Douglas Sirk melodrama, while Riley’s “Round Midnight” takes place in a functional modern city, full of glazed buildings, in which people are completely estranged from each other. His style is crystal clear, but the few angular notes hint that not everything is perfect in this clean and ultramodern world. Under the surface there is a dark utopia created in this track. But there is another possibility to interpret the way he plays this track – and this has to do with Riley’s personal situation.

    During a recording session, he realized that he couldn’t play anymore and went to see a doctor, who diagnosed Parkinson’s disease. He had to stop playing for some time, and luckily he has recovered with the help of medication. However, he had to revise his technique. “Live with Repertoire” is what he calls his “first post-Parkinson’s record, though that’s not exactly a great selling point!” Maybe more than any of his latest albums this one shows Riley’s personality and individuality. It is this new Riley that becomes audible in tunes like “Round Midnight”, but also in the slight disharmonies and rhythmic bumps in “Body and Soul”, “I’m getting sentimental over you” or “Darn That Dream” – the songs appear in a different light in front of this background. Riley seems to face his destiny in a similar way as Keith Jarrett has done it – by playing the music of his youth, the standards – he displays his roots.

    So, if you are a Riley beginner you might rather pick his trio album “Flight” (FMR) or “Synopsis” (Emanem), both with Barry Guy and Tony Oxley, or the above mentioned “Solo in Vilnius” – but “Live with Repertoire” is absolutely another true gem in his catalogue.

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