“He told me, ‘I’m getting my 15 minutes and you’ll get it, too, so enjoy it,’” says Riley, the boundless composer and keyboard improviser who turns 80 in June and is definitely savoring the moment. He’s happy to be around to play and hear all the music that’s being performed in his honor by a wide range of artists at concerts and festivals in Amsterdam, Boston, San Francisco and London.
“It’s good to be alive at 80, in relatively good health and still working,” says Riley, the down-to-earth godfather of Minimalism whose expansive music is deeply ingrained with Indian music and jazz. “I’ve had a chance to work with some wonderful musicians, especially lately. It feels good.”
Many of the musicians who’ve been inspired by or collaborated with Riley — and a few he hasn’t played with but knock him out — will be saluting him over the next few months in San Francisco, where he wrote his epochal 1964 work “In C” (his favorite version of it at the moment is the one recorded in Bamako in 2013 by the young conductor André de Ridder with top Malian musicians and Brian Eno).
Riley chose the artists whose music will be featured at the Palace of Fine Arts on Thursday, April 30, and Friday and Saturday nights at the Cowell Theater, when the California Institute of Integral Studies celebrates his 80th (he was born June 24 in the gold country town of Colfax, not that far from where he lives now on “27 acres of paradise in the Sierra foothills”).
The first night features the string quartets of John Zorn, the noted avant-garde New Yorker with whom Riley has done projects over the years, performed by New York’s crack young JACK quartet and soprano Tony Arnold. Friday brings forth the virtuoso violinist Kala Ramnath, who incorporates aspects of Indian vocal music into her hypnotic playing. Saturday night belongs to the improvising pianist Thollem McDonas, whose keyboard flights, Riley wrote in the liner notes to one of McDonas’ recordings, “unleash cascades of notes of seemingly impossible velocity and no matter where he goes tonally, it always seems right, fresh and satisfying.”
Another Riley tribute, produced and performed by Kronos Quartet, with whom the composer has had a long and very productive relationship, takes place at the SFJAZZ Center June 26-28. Among other things, it includes the quartet’s first full performance in 20 years of Riley’s vast “Salome Dances for Peace,” and commissioned works in his honor by various contemporary composers, including his son, guitarist-composer Gyan Riley, who’s writing a piece for the Kronos, him and his dad.
Papa Riley, who wears a biblical beard, is looking forward to this weekend’s concerts in part because he doesn’t know what to expect. He’s familiar with much of Zorn’s work, including his Masada music, “which is very lyrical and quite beautiful,” but not the string quartets.
“I didn’t know if he was going to come out and play saxophone, or bring people to do Masada or what,” says Riley, who admires Zorn’s versatility and prolific output. “This music will be new for me, so I can enjoy it for the first time.”
He describes Ramnath, who often performs with one of Riley’s longtime associates, saxophonist George Brooks, “like an angel in human form. Just to watch her play is an extraordinary thing. She has this tremendously relaxed, sublime way of playing that draws you in immediately. She’s known for her incredibly lyrical playing. I’m always thrilled when I hear her play. She’s one of the greatest musicians on the planet.”
Asked if she was going to play any of Riley’s music, the violinist e-mailed that she didn’t know any of his pieces. “I’m going to play hard-core Indian music, which Terry loves!”
Riley met McDonas at a party at former Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud’s house and listened in awe to the pianist’s CD on the drive home. “He’s absolutely mesmerizing,” Riley says. “He’s very free. He starts with an idea and you watch him develop it in a way that unfolds like a beautiful flower, organically.”