PREVIEW/INTERVIEW: Howard Riley and Keith Tippett (Duo. Pizza Express Soho, 9th Mar, Steinway Spirio Festival)

Keith Tippett at Café Oto. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2013. All rights reserved.

The Steinway Festival at Pizza Express Soho has brought improvising jazz pianists HOWARD RILEY and KEITH TIPPETT to play a rare concert together - this is in fact the very first time since 2003.

Geoff Winston talked to Riley and Tippett separately about their concert, and the background to it. Their mutual respect goes back to when they first crossed paths in London in the late 60s. This is a condensed and interwoven version of the two conversations.

LondonJazz News: How did the Steinway Festival concert come about?

Howard Riley: It came out of the blue. We'd been talking about playing in public [again]. It was offered to me as a gig and I said, 'Well, I'd like to do it with Keith.'

Keith Tippett: Pizza Express rang Howard, who doesn't work so much in this country. It was Howard's suggestion, and then they rang me.

LJN: How do you get a duo to take place?

Tippett: Our work has been intermittent but sustained. A lot of factors come in to this - you need a venue and you need two complementary pianos … so [because of the expense] you're limited to festivals and places like the South Bank. Working at the Pizza Express, which is a club, is wonderful. I did one there two or three years ago with Stan Tracey, so it's wonderful to do one with Howard.

LJN: What will the concert format be?

Tippett: Suddenly we've got a gig, it's marvellous, and usually what we do, we'll both perform a solo set, interval, and then perform together.

Riley: It'll also be nice to play solo for each other. We usually do that if we're in a concert for a whole evening, as opposed to doing a festival spot. It also enables people to hear you as an individual pianist. When people hear us play solo they think, how does that fit together as a duo? I'm not even sure how it does. The only thing I know is that it does!

Howard Riley at the Vortex in 2008
Photo credit: Smkphotos / Creative Commons

LJN: How did you first work together?

Riley: The very first main gig that Keith did [6 January 1969] was at the 100 Club on a Monday night. Monday night was modern and new jazz. The Jazz Centre Society put on The Keith Tippett Sextet. It was opposite the Howard Riley Trio. I immediately saw this was a great pianist.

Tippett: [In the early 70s in London] Howard was more associated with the [London] Musicians' Collective and I was more associated with people from The Brotherhood [of Breath], but we used to genuinely enjoy each other's playing. I started doing duets with Stan Tracey in the 70s and it was Howard who approached me in the early 80s saying, 'How about doing a duet?' and I said, 'Of course,' and we found it really worked well.

Riley: That was our first gig together, 1981 at Goldsmiths College. It obviously worked. We just sat down and played. We've always done that with that duo. We just sit down and play together. That's one of the nicest things about it. One of the intriguing things about it, as well. Then in the 80s we worked spasmodically because with a piano duo there are lots of problems in terms of getting it on the road. You've got to have two decent pianos for a start.

Tippett: If we were two saxophone players we might have played together more - but two piano players - hardly ever. It's a special thing.

LJN: [To Keith Tippett] What is it about Howard's approach that resonates with you?

Tippett: That's too difficult to answer, but what I would like to say about Howard's playing is that he is so individual. You can tell it's Howard within a couple of bars, and you can't say that about too many piano players.

LJN: [To Howard Riley]What is it that is special about working with Keith?

Riley: Keith and I have had different duos over the years. I had a duo with Jaki Byard, playing standards and improvising. He was such a great pianist. That duo was very different from the one with Keith, where we just sit down and, literally, improvise. It's not planned. We don't discuss it. It just happens. It's a sort of spiritual thing, almost. It's very free in the real sense of the word, and we always enjoy playing together. [Keith] is very open to musical ideas, that's important, in that situation where you're thrown back on your own resources. We have a vocabulary that happens to come from playing with each other, from listening hard and years of experience of playing with different people … and it does work very well. You've got to trust each other and just get down there and play. It's always worked when we start playing. There's always slight anxiety when playing, but not with me and Keith.

LJN: Is there some sort of tacit agreement on what routes to take?

Tippett: No, it's spontaneous composition. No pillow talk.

Riley: There's no set compositions [but] in terms of listening, the thing is a giant composition, really. It comes out as a composition, but it isn't, it's just improvised.

LJN: When listening to the duo recordings, they seem to have an architectural sense and scale to them.

Riley: The thing to remember is that Keith and I are both composers. As you have said, there's an architecture to it which comes from the composing point of view. I think that's the secret, if any, of what we do together.


Howard Riley and Keith Tippett have recorded three duo piano concerts.

- In 1981, the first ever duo, was live at Goldsmiths College and released as First Encounter, one of the 3 LPs in Riley's Facets set.

- In Focus (cover image above) was a 1984 Greenwich Festival concert at Woolwich Tramshed, and The Bern Concert was in front of a studio audience for Swiss Radio in 1993. 'Probably the best of the lot.' (Riley); 'The one that sticks out in my mind.' (Tippett.)

- In 2002 they performed a piano trio with John Tilbury, put out on the CD, Another Part of the Story, by Emanem, and in 2003 two shorter solos and a duo were recorded on the Pianoforte tour and included on its CD by Slam Productions.

Howard Riley and Keith Tippett duo concert at Pizza Express Soho, 9 March, in the Steinway Festival 2016. BOOKINGS

LINK: Full programme for Steinway Spirio Two Piano Festival

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