The London premiere of a new, half-hour long documentary Howard Riley – Cheerfully Beyond Category will take place at the Vortex on Sunday afternoon 4 September. The film, which was first shown at Giofest XIV in Glasgow in November 2021, is by film-maker Cath Longbottom.
Longbottom’s 30-year career in television broadcast has taken her all over the world – Afghanistan, Syria, South Africa and beyond. She has a strong journalistic instinct and is passionate about making programs about music and the arts. Like Howard Riley, Cath grew up in West Yorkshire and has been based in London since 2005, where she makes films, does triathlon and plays tenor saxophone.
The Vortex session will also feature a Q&A with Longbottom and the premiere of “A Conversation Between Two Pianos”, a concert performance of Howard Riley and Keith Tippett’s last ever duo. Interview by Sebastian
LondonJazz News: How did you first get to know Howard Riley?
Cath Longbottom: I got to know Howard at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he ran a Saturday morning jazz workshop for around 40 years.
LJN: And how did the film come about?
CL: I’d made a few short films about artists and creators and it struck me that there was very little video of Howard available online despite him being a prolific recording artist, so I asked how he’d feel about me making a short film. He generously agreed to give me access to a number of sessions in rehearsals, gigs and even the recording studio.
LJN: When was the earliest footage filmed that you use in the documentary and what is it?
CL: We started filming together in 2016, just before Howard’s duo performance with Keith Tippett at the The Steinway Spirio Two-Piano Festival’ at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club. Howard then suggested that I could follow him into the recording studio as he laid down the track that was to become : CD 5 Mutability Three (Longer Story) from his box set Constant Change 1976-2016 on No Business Records. The film begins as Howard sits at a grand piano in the recording studio.
LJN: You also interviewed him….
CL: We had a long and free-ranging conversation in Howard’s living room! Just Howard and me, two cameras, lots of television lighting equipment and me operating everything (the joys of self-funding a film). Accordingly, the atmosphere was very relaxed, it felt very much like we were just having a chat.
LJN: What did you want to ask him?
CL: I play jazz myself, but I was curious about the free end of the spectrum – I was interested to know how one approaches playing when freed from the usual structures of chord changes, charts, rhythmic frameworks, etc. We talked just before his gig with Keith and he surprised me by saying that they never planned what they were going to play – they just sat down and started playing. They talked about the acoustics, and which of the two pianos they personally preferred, then talked about some very loose ideas about what they might do, but nothing was structured ahead of time – what we filmed that evening was very much an unfolding of a complex Interaction between two mature and incredibly connected musicians at the peak of their careers. It was mesmerising to witness.
LJN: What aspects of his art and his personality come across most vividly?
CL: When I listened back to the interview, a number of themes emerged very organically – Howard’s ethos, evolution and commitment to change. This striving for a different way of playing may, he acknowledges, make it difficult for the public, who get used to a certain style and expect the performer to keep doing more of the same as time goes by. I got the strong impression that Howard values artistic integrity over commercial success, and has always sought to be true to his own values as a composer and performer.
LJN: You have other musicians reflecting on how it is to work with Howard…
CL: I was very fortunate to be able to film Barry Guy and Lucas Niggli at the Vortex when they were rehearsing for gigs with Howard in both 2017 and 2018, so I caught a quick interview with each of them backstage just before they performed. As Lucas pointed out – they rehearse their communication as much as the pieces themselves, which are likely to morph during the performance. It’s more a case of preparing how to work together and think together as a trio so that each is responding to the others. Although Barry and Howard go way back, Lucas wasn’t even born when they first started recording together!
LJN: Do you have a the niche audience in mind who know their free jazz?
CL: Though I would expect the Vortex audience to be full of Howard fans, I would hope that a more general audience might enjoy learning about Howard and his music, and find inspiration in his story. Despite health challenges, Howard has consistently refused to rest on his laurels, and I think this quest for constant change has sustained him over a long and varied career.
LJN: Howard Riley’s health has been sadly declining in the period since you first embarked on the project. What has been the effect of that on the way the film has turned out?
CL: When we started filming together, Howard had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease some five years before, but was in pretty good shape – I had to chase him down the corridor in a sequence we filmed at Goldsmiths as he was walking so quickly! As the film ended up evolving into a shoot over a number of years, we sadly see the changes to Howard’s mobility. What’s striking, however, is that when Howard sits at the piano to play, there is a transformative effect. As Lucas observes the last time they play together – although he has some health challenges now, when he plays “there is magic coming out of his fingers and of his imagination”.
LJN: What kind of feedback did you get from the Glasgow premiere?
CL: I was delighted that a number of the audience members in Glasgow told me that they’d loved the film for its portrayal of both the man and the music. It was particularly heartening that those who know him well, notably – Maggie Nicolsgrande dame of the free scene – felt that it was an accurate reflection of the man they know and enjoyed the conversational tone of the film.
LJN: Where would you like the film to be seen next?
CL: I would love for the film to reach a wider audience – it will be Howard’s 80th next year – so why not have a moment of recognition on Sky Arts or BBC 4 for one of the pioneers of the free jazz scene?
I’d also be open to taking the film to other jazz clubs at home and abroad so please do contact me at email@example.com with any suggestions for broadcast or screenings.
Just a very quick word of thanks – first of all to Howard for his time and patience as the film took on a life of its own – and to the very many people who made this possible: The Vortex, PizzaExpress, Goldsmiths University of London, Porcupine Studios, GIOFest, No Business Records, all those who agreed to be filmed and interviewed, to Julie Tippetts for her support of this project, and finally to my friends on camera Paul Curran, Alvin Burrell and Piers Gray for their time and expertise. My apologies to anyone I may have inadvertently overlooked.
LINKS: Duncan Heining’s review of the film
Booking link for 4 September at the Vortex