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Jay Riley

Light From Dawn


by Ian Mann

June 15, 2017


An interesting and varied set of themes that embrace a broad range of musical styles with Riley's tenor sax at the centre of all the arrangements.

Jay Riley

“Light From Dawn”

(Self released)

Jay Riley is a Midlands based saxophonist, composer and educator.  As a teenager he first developed an interest in jazz through regular visits to Stratford Jazz Club where he was inspired by nationally known musicians such as saxophonists Alan Barnes and Gilad Atzmon and local heroes such as pianists Steve Tromans and Paul Sawtell. He is a musician who has stayed true to his roots and is still involved with the day to day running of Stratford Jazz.

Riley studied jazz at Dartington College of Arts, graduating in 2001, and has been a professional musician ever since. He has been a prolific sideman and session musician and has been a member of the popular Midlands jump-jive outfit Dr. Teeth Big Band with whom he toured widely and recorded two albums for the Birmingham based label Big Bear Music.

In 2006 Riley fronted the short lived prog/fusion group OiGoi but “Light From Dawn” (financed by a Crowdfunding campaign) represents his first recording as a leader and features his quartet, JRQ, a group that are beginning to build something of a following on the Midlands jazz circuit. Riley specialises on tenor sax and is joined by Matt Ball on piano and Wurlitzer, Jason Page on bass and Tom Haines, a composer and bandleader in his own right, at the drums.

As Riley’s background would suggest the music, which is largely comprised of Riley originals, covers a variety of jazz styles from the straight-ahead to funk and fusion. In his writing Riley has attempted to cover a wide range of emotions with the emphasis very much on ‘light and shade’.
The album includes two covers, “Hyperballad” by Bjork and “We Haven’t Turned Around” by the rock band Gomez.

Riley names his saxophone influences as Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter, Bob Reynolds (of Snarky Puppy) and Birmingham based saxophonist Chris Bowden. Much of Riley’s writing is done at the piano and he also cites the inspiration of The Bad Plus, GoGo Penguin, Keith Jarrett, E.S.T., Keith Tippett and Yann Tiersen.

The album commences with the upbeat sounds of the appropriately titled “Carelessly Happy” with its buoyant soul jazz grooves and r’n’b styled tenor. It’s an infectious and accessible opener with Riley’s tenor sometimes reminding me of the late Dick Morrissey, something reinforced by the following track, the more overtly funky “Devon Express” which sees Ball switching from acoustic piano to Wurlitzer and sharing the solos with Riley’s punchy tenor. 

There’s a change of style as Page’s electric bass introduces “We Haven’t Turned Around” by the rock band Gomez. Riley smoulders his way through the anthemic melody and the piece also includes a further feature from Page plus a brief cameo from Ball on piano at the close.

Unaccompanied tenor introduces and closes “False Normality” and there are passages in saxophone trio mode on this rousing Sonny Rollins styled composition which is arguably the most straight-ahead jazz piece thus far. 

The second ‘outside’ item, Bjork’s “Hyperballad”, has proved to be a popular piece with jazz performers with Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and the British group Metamorphic, led by pianist Laura Cole, both recording versions of the song. Riley’s soulful tenor remains faithful to the melody before taking flight in the closing stages, urged on by Haines’ nimble and energetic drum work.

“Matching Models” is another excursion into funk territory, driven by Page’s monstrous electric bass grooves and Haines’ solid drumming and with Ball again featuring on Wurlitzer. Riley’s earthy tenor helps to give the music an authentically urban feel and there’s a brief cameo from Page on electric bass at the close of the piece.

Riley describes the next two tracks, “The Fall” and “Ghost in the Mirror” as “darker songs” which explore “bitter sadness, resent and the descent into spiralling negativity”. Listening to them isn’t nearly as depressing but the tunes (particularly “The Fall”) do display a more reflective side of the music.

Riley’s tenor initially broods thoughtfully on “The Fall” with Page and Ball deploying electric bass and Wurlitzer to atmospheric effect.  Mid way through the tune there’s a change in mood and pace as Riley uncorks his emotions with a fiercely impassioned solo, introducing an unexpected element of dissonance as Haines drives the music forward with some powerful drumming.

Although thematically linked “Ghost in the Mirror” is generally lighter in mood with a subtly funky back-beat driving the music as Riley emotes on tenor, sharing the solos with Ball’s Wurlitzer. 

With its languid bass groove and alternately floating / soaring sax melodies “Light From Dawn” signals a return to sunnier musical climes, something confirmed by the funky, optimistic sounds of the following “Stand Again”.

The ebullient “Rowan’s Riff” begins with a child’s voice (Riley’s young son Rowan) singing the riff that Riley subsequently plays on tenor sax and which forms the basis for this joyously upbeat Latin flavoured track. Riley develops the riff into a strident solo and he’s followed by an extended solo percussive passage from the consistently impressive Haines.

Riley also comments on the thematic link between the next two pieces saying;
“’Smiles’ and ‘Stronger Than You Think’ reflect on the beauty of life and the joy that fills your soul and makes you dance around the kitchen”.

With its driving rhythms and exuberant sax melodies “Smiles” is as sunny as its title suggests with r’n’b style tenor and punchy, percussive piano prominent in the arrangement.

“Stronger Than You Think” is very different musically. Slow and languorous it represents a kind of instrumental power ballad with Riley’s tenor breaking cover to soar anthemically in the tune’s latter stages.

“Sorrows In The Morrow” features Riley the pianist on a spacious and atmospheric solo performance that at first appears to conclude the album on an unexpectedly reflective note. It’s a tender and rather lovely performance that concentrates on mood building rather than pianistic pyrotechnics.

Instead the album ends with a remixed version of “The Fall”. The “Joe Jordan Remix” features glitchy drum grooves which Riley describes as “underground dubstep”. It’s all a bit unsettling at first, and jazz purists may be somewhat dismissive, but I gradually found myself getting more and more into it as the piece progressed, especially in the more turbulent second section.

Overall “Light From Dawn” represents a pretty decent showing from Riley. He’s written an interesting and varied set of themes that embrace a broad range of musical styles. It’s very much his album and his sax is at the centre of all the arrangements. His sidemen all play well and support him admirably but I found myself wishing that we’d heard rather more from them as soloists. However this is primarily because Riley doesn’t develop his themes in the orthodox jazz manner. There are fifteen tracks here but most are around the three to four minute mark, the length of a pop or rock song. However Riley’s influences are spread far and wide and I’m sure that he makes no apologies for this.

Riley’s press release suggests that when the band play live they stretch out further on these tunes, exploring the grooves and harmonies more deeply. For audiences in Riley’s catchment area I suspect that this might be the best way to enjoy this band, the leader’s big toned tenor and the unquestionable ability of the sidemen suggests that they would provide an exciting and enjoyable live experience. On record jazz listeners might feel themselves wishing that Riley would develop his (very good) ideas a little more. 

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