by Ian Mann
June 20, 2021
An intriguing and evocative series of vignettes that incorporates a wide range of sounds and moods, from the sombre to the playful. Fascinating, adventurous and surprisingly accessible.
“Build A Friend”
(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAiM6)
Johnny Richards – solo piano
“Build A Friend” is the sixth release on the Newcastle based New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings imprint, founded in 2020 as a response to the pandemic by promoter and ‘Project
Co-ordinator’ Wesley Stephenson.
Stephenson is the curator of the annual Newcastle Jazz and Improvised Music Festival and the new label represents a direct offshoot of this. The decision to establish a record label came about as the result of the cancellation of the 2020 Festival, which had been due to take place in late September / early October, but which was eventually reduced to just a couple of livestream performances.
Stephenson’s main objective with regard to the establishment of a label at this time was to offer a creative and economic outlet to musicians who had been denied live performance opportunities due to the pandemic. A successful Crowdfunder campaign was integral to the founding of the imprint and the first album appeared in December 2020. Reviews of the majority of the label’s releases to date can be found elsewhere on The Jazzmann.
An ethos of sustainability informs the project with the label deploying a carbon neutral manufacturing plant and distribution network and using recycled and biodegradable materials wherever possible.
Johnny Richards is a pianist and composer based in Leeds and is a graduate of the city’s Conservatoire. He is a member of the band Shatner’s Bassoon and is currently working on a duo project with Bad Plus drummer Dave King, with an album release slated for 2022.
He has also collaborated widely with Leeds based guitarist/drummer/sound artist/composer Craig Scott on the latter’s various projects, including the groups Craig Scott’s Gastric Band and Craig Scott’s Lobotomy.
Richards has also worked with musicians such as saxophonist James Mainwaring, of Roller Trio fame, and electronics artist Radek Rudnicki, founder of the band
Spacef!ght. Richards also has his own electronics project Felaluigi.
Others with whom he has collaborated include pianist Matthew Bourne, drummer/vocalist Sean Noonan, and the Ligeti Quartet.
Richards’ flirtations with the avant garde extend to his solo piano work, which makes extensive use of prepared piano techniques. The album title “Build A Friend” refers to the various devices that Richards deploys on the piano, with the album packaging incorporating a ‘list of ingredients’ as follows;
Bostik Blue Tack Original
Wilko’s ‘Functional Wooden Pegs’
1 roll of 48mm x 50m duct tape
A pebble from Brighton Beach
A large bag of Wilko’s ‘Pick & Mix Screws and Fixings’
An empty microphone case
(Maybe he should get Wilko and Bostik to sponsor him!)
These elements are added to an Ennis Spinet Upright piano and a Yamaha C3 Grand Piano.
“Build A Friend” features fifteen short solo improvisations recorded at two separate sessions in the autumn of 2018. The first was recorded at Holywell Studios in Leeds on September 5th on the Ennis Spinet, the second on December 17th at The Old Cow Shed, Keighley on the Yamaha Grand. Tracks from the two sessions are interspersed with one another, resulting in a rich musical patchwork incorporating a fascinating variety of sounds.
Stephenson’s decision to bring Richards’ work to the NEWJAiM label was inspired by a mutual love of the music of Aphex Twin and the movies of Francis Ford Coppola, particularly the 1974 film “The Conversation”.
“Build A Friend” represents Richards’ second solo album for prepared piano and follows his inaugural release “Play Sport & Operate Machinery” from 2014. His discography also includes releases by Shatner’s Bassoon, Craig Scott, Sean Noonan, The Sorcerers and sampler albums released by the ATA and Wasp Millionaire record labels.
The recording of “Build A Friend” was made possible by a Jazz North Open Bursary and the project has also been supported by Arts Council England, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and, of course, the Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music.
The album commences with “Farewell To Calm”, recorded in Leeds on the Ennis Spinet, an evocative piece that introduces Richards’ prepared piano techniques, but does so in an innately musical way. It’s an evocative, mood setting introduction that makes effective use of space and which doesn’t sound obviously ‘improvised’. There’s an underlying inner logic and sense of structure about this and other pieces that inclines the listener to think of Richards’ improvised vignettes as ‘spontaneous compositions’.
Richards’ titles, presumably ascribed to the pieces post-performance, also offer considerable insight. “Moths”, also recorded in Leeds, features high register pianistic flutterings, akin to those of moths clustering around a flame, these underpinned by lower register rumbles. The piano is even more obviously ‘prepared’ here, the presence of objects placed to dampen the sound of the strings is palpable, while Richards reaches into the interior of the instrument to pluck and scrape the strings.
The next three pieces come from Keighley with Richards embracing a more orthodox piano sound on the spacious, and appropriately pensive, “Inside Out Thought”, another evocative, mood building piece that again fits into the category of ‘spontaneous composition’ and hints at Richards’ classical roots.
The brief “Acrobat Grin” features glacial tinkling at the upper reaches of the instrument’s range and is sometimes reminiscent of the late, great Keith Tippett, a master of improvised solo piano and of prepared piano techniques and surely an influence on Richards.
By way of contrast “Darts” is more obviously confrontational, it’s sharp and spiky contours more focussed around the middle and lower registers as Richards really attacks the piano, the mood here ominous and brooding, before sliding into sullen subsidence.
It’s back to Leeds for “Depressed Circus”, another short vignette and one that features other worldly, prepared sounds, the mysterious noises of the circus after dark, when the audience has long gone home.
Also from Leeds the title track, “Build A Friend”, features Richards’ ‘list of ingredients’ in a highly rhythmic piece that exhibits something of that Aphex Twin influence. There’s also a prepared piano sound that reminded me of the hang drums of Portico Quartet.
The evocative blend of melody and rhythm on this piece is certainly capable of appealing to the Aphex / Portico audience as Richards strikes a rich musical seam that effectively combines mystery with accessibility.
We’re still in Leeds for the more obviously improvised ruminations of “Unfasten My Brain”, another masterclass in prepared piano techniques with Richards becoming increasingly playful as the piece progresses.
It’s back to Keighley for “Hell Is Rehydrating” and “Darts II”. The former sees Richards giving the Yamaha Grand a suitably demonic pummelling, creating dense, echoing layers of overtones in an unapologetic embracing of the avant garde.
“Darts II” continues where its predecessor left off, with a further dense exploration of the instrument’s lower registers. The piece follows a similar narrative arc to its companion as the intensity gradually dissipates, leading to a slow, simmering, atmospheric outro.
The next three pieces come from Leeds. “The Faded Memory Of A Town” deploys suitably spooky prepared piano techniques to evoke the ghostly atmosphere of an abandoned townscape.
Much of Richards’ output would make an effective soundtrack for an art house film, his evocative vignettes are highly adept at creating a sense of atmosphere or place. The following “10 % Viscount Swing” is a quirky parody that summons up the ghosts of the saloon in that abandoned town.
“Protect The Quirk (Tonal Victory)” completes this Leeds recorded trilogy, building on the atmosphere of the two previous pieces and again making effective use of the piano’s interior to create a rich panoply of highly evocative sounds, sometimes suggestive of other musical cultures, notably those of China or Japan.
The final two pieces come from Keighley. “Bob Rock’s Clone Factory” finds Richards more obviously deploying prepared piano techniques on The Yamaha – hitherto the pieces recorded on this instrument have been relatively more ‘conventional’ and have harnessed more ‘orthodox’ techniques. The ghostly sounds of the ‘Clone Factory’ are suitably mysterious and evocative and set the scene for the closing “Attentions”, a spacious study in minimal, glacial calm.
“Build A Friend” represents a fascinating adventure in sound. Richards’ combination of conventional and prepared piano techniques delivers a broad range of sounds and timbres, and with no single piece exceeding five minutes in duration no idea is allowed to outstay its welcome.
The result is an intriguing and evocative series of vignettes that incorporates a wide range of sounds and moods, from the sombre to the playful and all spaces in between. Much of the music is highly evocative and possesses a strong visual and narrative quality, and for all the avant garde trappings the music is also surprisingly accessible. The playfulness of some of the pieces also suggests Django Bates as a possible influence.
I believe the album has already been featured on Corey Mwamba’s Freedom programme on BBC Radio 3. I’m certain that Richards’ pieces would also appeal to the Late Junction / Night Tracks audience too.
It would also be interesting to see Richards deploying these techniques during the course of a live performance. In these difficult times one can but hope.
“Build A Friend” represents an excellent addition to the already impressive NEWJAiM catalogue and is very different from the label’s other solo piano release, Paul Taylor’s highly accomplished “Via”, reviewed here;
Whilst writing this I became conscious of the fact that I have yet to review NEWJAiM’s fifth release, “The King’s Hall Concert” by the trio Telemaque, featuring the American saxophonist/trumpeter Joe McPhee and the British rhythm team of John Pope (double bass) and Paul Hession (drums). I hope to redress this oversight shortly.
In the meantime “Build A Friend” and all other NEWJAiM releases are available at;