Howard Riley's discography contains at least 14 entries under solo piano. And that doesn't count the dates where he overdubbed himself two or three times. So listeners might legitimately ask the question: do we need any more? Well on this showing the answer is, unfortunately for sagging shelves, a resounding yes.
Constant Change 1976-2016 brings together two CDs worth of concert and out of print selections recorded between 1976 and 1987, and supplements it with three CDs of newly minted material from 2014-2016. While the older vintage has its plus points, it's the newer crop which merits the five stars and is essential, well up to the standard of Riley's astonishing The Complete Short Stories: 1998-2010 (No Business, 2011).
What's immediately apparent is that Riley's interests (or should that be obsessions?) have remained startlingly consistent across the years encompassed in this collection. His bracing harmonic sense, individual approach to time (facilitated by the unaccompanied format), determined avoidance of vamps or other prolonged rhythmic frameworks, and fierce attention to structure, all shine through from first to last. He blurs boundaries between free jazz spirit and contemporary classical intellect and between composed and improvised, as he incorporates preconceived ideas as part of flowing performances.
CD 1 contains 78 minutes of music assembled from two live recitals from Paris 1976 and Debrecen, Hungary in 1980. Studio versions of five of the six Paris titles previously appeared on a session issued as Singleness (Jazzprint, 1974) indicating a compositional foundation, even though they might readily pass for on the fly creations. Some of the ingredients of "Ice," especially the pummeled single notes and recurring melodic figures reappear on the later discs.
In this period some critics found the similarities to Cecil Taylor too pronounced. Certainly "Boeotian" wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Taylor album from this time with its stream of clipped cellular kernels, relentless press, and barrage of theme and counter theme evoking some baroque fever dream. But such numbers sound wonderful in hindsight, and with Taylor all but silent now, they can be appreciated on their own terms as an important component, but not the totality, of Riley's style.
CD2 reissues 13 pieces from three dates between 1983 and 1987, previously released on cassette as Fingerprints (Wondrous Music, 1992). By now the pull of Taylor is well sublimated and sits beside allusions to the wider tradition of Monk, Ellington and earlier fare, along with more meditative tracks. On the title cut a halting melody frames a flowery arpeggiated cascade, while the short, intense "Circling" adds Taylor inspired heft to dashing stride, and "For T.S.M." includes quotes from Monk tunes, again presaging later developments.
The three sprawling "Mutability" installments on the remaining CDs, each hovering around the hour mark, stand as epic journeys and demonstrate staggering focus. They seem to evolve naturally without signposting intent, so there's always an element of unpredictability. And they never fall back on rolling rhythms or song form (until the very end). As Riley observes in the liner booklet, which also includes an essay by critic Brian Morton, such expansiveness demands a lot from the audience as well as performer. Inevitably the veritable treasure chest of riches on offer rewards concentration, but it is also amenable to a more casual attitude, in which one dips in and out, uncovering singular gems on every spin.
"Mutability One (Longer Story)," which Riley explains has a preconceived shape displays taut internal logic, starting with a rattling single note knock, which forms one of the most discernible recurring motifs early on, and then resurfaces at intervals thereafter through to the close, amid the dramatic musings, sparkling sentences, swaying melodies, and close brushes with abstraction.
A somber, measured opening to "Mutability Two (Longer Story)" gives way to a more lilting honeyed segment, subverted by darker countercurrents. The Taylor influence surfaces briefly in a short sequence of hammered evenly articulated keystrokes, but also sits alongside a short burst of stride and melodic variations which suggest an old standard. Nonetheless all this takes the guise of a coherent personal odyssey as opposed to wanton stylistic promiscuity. Finally after a pause, comes a marvelous freewheeling 19-minute coda comprising introspective thickly coiled lines, sunnier interludes and Morse code stutters.
Riley reveals that unlike the preceding two discs, "Mutability Three (Longer Story)" was completely improvised. It's a different strategy but one which results in equally high quality output. The pianist deploys similar constituent parts: glinting passages of boogie woogie, ballad stylings, and joyful celebratory runs, but by this stage he is beyond influences, drawing on essences distilled over the decades. A sense of form remains as he returns to extemporized phrases with as much regularity as in pieces with predetermined material. In the only departure, he weaves in Monk's "Round Midnight" which gradually blooms towards the end after increasingly obvious hints, serving as a well-judged emotional resolution.
This box set, and in particular the contemporary sessions, show an artist at the very top of his game.
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