Though alto saxophonist Lynn Riley will be playing a few sets Saturday, October 10, at the Candlelight Lounge in Trenton, when asked who was going to be in her band for that gig, she says she doesn’t know.
Most non-musicians might find that strange — that someone who is scheduled to work a job in the near future has no idea who they’re going to be collaborating with — but Riley says that’s par for the course for musicians, especially jazz musicians.
“The last time I played there (Larry Hilton, who books the venue) had an all-women group for me. I don’t know if that will be the case this time,” she says during a late-night telephone interview. “Typically it’s a basic quartet — piano, bass, drums, with me in front.”
Any working jazz musician, Riley explains, knows a certain array of standards that any member of the quartet can call from the stand and know that every other member has knowledge of melody, chord changes, and the architecture of each song.
“That is the nature of jazz,” Riley says. “Typically, unless you are playing original compositions, which you would need to rehearse with the people you are working with, it’s very spontaneous in terms of how we put together a set. Most of the songs we do are standards. So sometimes I’ll call a tune, sometimes the piano player, sometimes the bass player. There is a broad repertoire of compositions of which we all have to have extensive knowledge.”
Her knowledge base comes from many places, many eras, and many cultures. Riley was born in Washington, D.C., but due to her father’s job as an attorney and her mother’s eclectic, jack-of-all-trades skill set (nurse-bicycle repairperson-mother), she moved around often as a child. After graduating from Conestoga High on the Philadelphia Main Line in 1974, she attended the University of Colorado, where as a flautist and French horn player she majored in music and studied mostly classical music, with some small jazz emphasis as well.
Then her dad got a job with a now-defunct airline — and Riley’s life changed significantly. She had always been vaguely interested in the University of Hawaii, which boasts a music program heavily invested in the ethnomusicology of Asia, Polynesia, and the Pacific. With her benefits of being able to travel most anywhere in the world at little or no cost, she decided to cast her lot in the Aloha State.
“I had never had a real chance to explore a lot of different musical cultures,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about UH or Hawaii, but I applied and I got accepted. It was the best decision I ever could have made. I absolutely loved it there. I was exposed to so many kinds of music I had no knowledge of before I went there.”
Riley joined UH’s ethnomusicology program, specializing in Korean flute and the South Indian (Carnatic) vocal tradition. Riley, who received her ethnomusicology degree from UH in 1978, also played in the university’s renowned Indonesian gamelan ensemble, led by the late, celebrated Pak Hardja Susilo.
But it was her encounters with one of the few jazz stalwarts in Honolulu in the 1970s that really turned her path.
“There was a pianist named Ernie Washington who was a fixture in Hawaii when I was there,” Riley says. “The Hawaii jazz scene was somewhat limited — there were a handful of people who really played, and a small community of supporters. But I was able to study with him for the better part of four years.”
He helped Riley learn the foundational skills and feelings of jazz, as well as classical music. One of the most significant things Washington did for Riley, she says, was to persuade her to play saxophone.
“He suggested to me that if I wanted to work in jazz, I pick up saxophone, because there is not a lot of work out there for jazz flutists. So I picked up the saxophone. It was definitely the right move. For one, I love playing the saxophone, and I feel like I am best able to express my voice on the instrument.”
After graduating, Riley got a job with TWA and ended up in Kansas City. While there, she studied with a private sax teacher and was part of the house band for the K.C. Women’s Jazz Festival. She had the opportunity to back some of the greats of the music, such as Marian McPartland, Carmen McRae, Shirley Scott, Sir Roland Hanna, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lew Tabackin, and many others. Though far inland, she got her sea legs during those years.
“There was a much larger pool of people there to learn from. Kansas City has always had a huge, long-standing, deep jazz heritage — Charlie Parker, Count Basie, many others. I spent five years there, and after that, I moved to Philly.” The single musician still lives in the city.
She came East to establish herself in an area close to the epicenter of jazz; she also had connections here from living in the Philadelphia area as a youngster. “I’ve been here for over 25 years. I moved a lot when I was younger, and so now I haven’t moved. I travel a lot, but I haven’t moved.”
Philadelphia and New York and places in between, such as Trenton, she says, “are great for me to continue to explore all types of music.” In addition to playing as a leader and sidewoman in many straight-up jazz ensembles, she leads a group called World Mix.
“We incorporate South African music and reggae, and other styles. What I often do is not necessarily play a straight tune in that style; we may bring certain rhythms, harmonies, or feelings into standards and make them ours in that way.”
Like a good ethnomusicologist, Riley — who is also an adjunct professor at Drexel University and teaches privately — travels worldwide to study different musical cultures. As an expert and aficionado of African Diaspora musical forms, she goes to the Caribbean, South America, Ghana, and South Africa a lot to listen, study, and play with musicians there. But one of her areas of greatest interest right now is the Pacific Coast of Colombia. She attends a musical festival in Cali focused on local Afro-Pacific music every summer.
“There is so much beautiful, powerful music there, and it is an area of the planet that almost nobody knows about,” she says — probably wondering what sounds she’ll find waiting for her in Trenton.
Lynn Riley, Candlelight Lounge, 24 Passaic Street, Trenton. Saturday, October 10, 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. $10 minimum. 609-695-9612 or jazztrenton.com.