Among the list of the emerging British jazz musicians in the 1960s, the name of pianist Howard Riley is one of the British musicians from the period who is mentioned least of all and yet, passing quietly under the radar, his influence both as pianist and later as an educator to the current generation of aspiring jazz musicians has been a significant one. Riley’s compositions have been recorded by strings quartets as well as the title track of his second offering and major label release for CBS, ‘Angle’, making it onto the New Jazz Orchestra album, ‘Le déjeuner sur l’herbe’.
The album ‘Discussions’ originally came out in 1968 as an extremely limited edition of ninety-nine copies in order to avoid purchase tax duty and as such rapidly acquired the rare and collectable status. Dusk Fire in their infinite wisdom have seen fit to re-issue the album along with two choice bonus tracks from a much earlier live recording in 1960. Collectively, they enable the listener to begin to gradually piece together the underrated career of Howard Riley.
He began playing the piano aged just six and by his teens was already the leader of his very own jazz trio in Huddersfield. Musically influenced by the more avant-garde playing of Paul Bley, Riley studied music, first at Bangor University as an undergraduate, and then as a postgraduate in the United States at the Indiana States University for an M.A. with David N. Baker (himself a student of composer and leader George Russell), in the process widening his horizons no end. Back in the UK and settling in London, Riley, barely scraping enough money together, managed to trade some free studio time with a pop group manager in exchange for writing a couple of tunes. With this secured, the recording of the album began in earnest in late December 1967. Compositions divide up neatly between originals and re-workings of standards. Of the former, the delicate sounding ‘Sunflower’ stands out with bowed acoustic bass and quasi-classical tones and Riley’s playing comes across with its staccato lines as being influenced by Monk while ‘What’s new’ and Folk theme no. 1′ are much freer in form with energetic drumming from John Hiseman in the first piece and screeching improvisational bass in the second. Some of the standards take a direct leaf out of the then innovator Bill Evans trio approach and ‘Sweet and lovely’ is distinguished by some fine interplay between bass and piano. A favourite Miles Davis piece, ‘Nardis’ is performed as an uptempo waltz.
Arguably the most individual stamp is laid down on ‘Spring is here’ where the bass is forceful, but never overly dominant. In 1968 Jon Hiseman left to form blues-rock formation Colosseum and thereafter original trio ceased. Howard Riley would record sporadically thereafter before embarking upon a long-term career as an educator and has taught for several decades at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music from which several of today’s young jazz musicians have graduated in recent years. Howard Riley has equally been leader of the London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra for some twenty-five years. The evocative original artwork is by Barry Guy, bassist on the studio recording.