REVIEW: Howard Riley and Keith Tippett at the Steinway Spirio Two Piano Festival at Pizza Express Jazz Club

Howard Riley at Pizza Express.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved

Howard Riley and Keith Tippett
(Pizza Express Jazz Club.9th March 2016 Steinway Spirio Two Piano Festival. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

It is eight years since pianist Howard Riley last played in London (at the Vortex) - far too long - so it was a particular delight to mark his return with one of his rare duo piano concerts with another exceptional pianist, Keith Tippett, as a high point of the Two Piano Festival at Pizza Express.

Riley's and Tippett's is a remarkable, if necessarily occasional, collaboration which goes back to their first performance together at Goldsmiths College in 1981, thankfully committed to vinyl, and has its roots in their early days in London fifteen years earlier, as noted in our preview (link below). Other full concert duos were recorded in 1984 and 1993, and their last time on stage together was as part of a tour in 2003.

The historical significance of this event was underscored when Joseph Paice introduced these two 'giants of the improvised music scene', as 'the absolute highlight of the week'.

Keith Tippett at Pizza Express.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved

Their two opening solo sets marked out the complementary territories that each occupies. Tippett's melodic lyricism was swiftly expanded by light exploratory brushes with the piano's internal organs and purposefully clipped harpsichord timbres. Quoting from his composition Dedicated to Mingus with its hints of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and slipping in to the blues, Tippett mixed the orchestral with dazzling flights between the upper and lower registers, and insinuated a musical box to add a quirkily mysterious element.

Riley, despite his recent absence, has lost none of his vigour or rigour at the keyboard. Whereas Tippett plays much of the time in an eyes-closed, near-trance state, Riley looks at the keyboard all the time he plays. Asserting a strongly confident approach through a metallic, percussive overture, his chordal, bluesy melody was the springboard to a walking bass episode and a pure jazz piano extemporisation which wove together Monk's Round Midnight with Ellington and ended up with the Cha, Cha!

Together they displayed an extraordinary, intuitive understanding in an absorbing, extended duo set. Perhaps the best way to describe their complex, poetic confection is as an intense meditation on the piano, defying neat boundaries, blasting Rachmaninov and Debussy with the blues, and maverick turns of phrase with technical runs of hyper-velocity. This was a harmony of exploration, guided by a sense of the primacy of the creative flow and given structure, as Riley had discussed earlier, by their experiences as composers as well as performers and interpreters.

Rhythmic rolls gave way to Township jive, deep in Tippett's experience, Joplin's piano rags, children's rhymes and pianistic games of of hide and seek. The layered juxtaposition of ideas was both breathtaking and absolutely rooted. A dense chordal build-up led in to the final sequence – a glorious improvised duet around Blue Monk. After the applause had died down, Tippett summed up the experience perfectly, 'Before you ask for anything else, that's all we know!' That really was it - Riley and Tippett had given so generously, nobody could have asked for more.

Thanks are due to the initiative of Joseph Paice at the venue, and of Steinway who supplied two marvellously richly-toned pianos for the event. Maybe Steinway could be persuaded to give Riley and Tippett the means to extend their joint CV on other occasions - at a Steinway venue such as Kings Place, or other intimate club venues, where large pianos can fit through doors!

Howard Riley and Keith Tippett at Pizza Express.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved


LINK: Interview with Howard Riley and Keith Tippett

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