Halfway through the second track on Gyan Riley’s new CD Melismantra, you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s a feeling not unlike being lost in the mist of the hills, mysterious and beautiful. Thus far, the Oakland musician has made his name as a classical guitarist, playing solo recitals and with orchestras, including the San Francisco Symphony. But when the wailing electric guitars take over, trading runs with multi-tracked classical lines, it becomes very clear that Riley is moving in his own direction.
The son of legendary Bay Area composer Terry Riley, Gyan was the first guitarist to win a full scholarship to the San Francisco Conservatory, and has moved on to a prolific performing career throughout the US and Europe. Partly through his family but also through his mesmerizing musical ability, he’s made a lot of high-class friends in his thirty years. Melismantra, which was recorded, produced, and released by Riley on his own, features a few of them: tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, the inimitable Scott Amendola on drums, and Tracy Silverman on electric violin and viola. Every piece on the new CD was written by Riley as well, which isn’t too uncommon in the classical world, but definitely a step away from playing the Concierto de Aranjuez.
Over a beer at the Albatross Pub in Berkeley recently, Riley made his intentions clear. “I knew that I wanted to make the record I wanted to make,” he said several times. In person, he’s an upbeat guy with a short beard, happy to knock a few back, and very open about his new creative direction. “I wanted to make it without time constraints and I also wanted to explore the resources of modern digital recording,” he explained. “I bought a G5, ProTools, a 002 rack, a couple of decent mics, and made it happen.”
Riley moved to his parents’ house in the Grass Valley area for a little solitude to focus on the recording process, but didn’t exactly find it. “I did it in the house I grew up in actually, and I was alone up there when I made it,” he said. “I basically had a really nice space, very quiet, but there were some gunshots and chainsaws! When they started shooting, or fired up the chainsaws, I couldn’t track. … It was so nice to wake up at three o’clock in the morning with an idea and say, ‘I’m gonna record this right now! There are no chainsaws happening! It’s perfect!'”
Riley’s classical influences are certainly still present on the album — after all, this is a man who possesses first-rate classical technique and an innate understanding of the nylon string guitar. But his music is also improvisational, mixing rock solos, jazz thought processes and sense of groove, and Indian classical music’s mood and spirituality, which is a reflection of his upbringing. “When I was a kid, going to sleep, my dad would put on this record of vocal raga,” he recalled. “I don’t even know what it was.” Riley also takes occasional lessons with his father, who’s a prominent disciple of the legendary Pandit Pran Nath, and his dad appears on one track on his debut album.
At moments, Melismantra evokes John McLaughlin’s ’80s era, when he was mixing it up on the nylon strings with Trilok Gurtu on percussion. Riley openly admires the band. Like McLaughlin’s, Riley’s playing seems effortless, but he never sacrifices musicality in the name of technique. His music oozes with soul.
All of this makes Riley a rare bird. The music on Melismantra walks the line between composed and improvised, and it’s not always easy to tell which is which. “I don’t remember who said it — the idea is to play composed music like you’re improvising and to improvise like you’re playing composed music.” Riley reflected for a moment. “Sometimes I like to have a more rigid, steely structure that has a more edgy quality to it, but you just can’t achieve the freedom and the beauty of an improvised solo when it’s written down.”
When pressed about the idea of record labels, Riley admitted that he’d talked with some relatively major labels but still decided to go out on his own. “If I found a copacetic label, that would be great, but I have friends who have told me that I’d be crazy to sign with any label right now,” Gyan smiled at his beer. “It’s just the way the industry is working right now. It’s a really good time to be an independent artist, with the Internet and the ability to put your own music out there.”
What comes through the most about Riley is his sense of enthusiasm and excitement for what he’s doing. He may not be on a major label with whatever marketing muscle it could provide, but he’s sure of what he wants and the path he’s on. While the world tends to put musicians in a box, he’s a guy who’s stepping aside, playing solo concerts and with his ensemble, writing his own music, and actively seeking. He reiterates: “I wanted to make the kind of record I wanted to make,” a statement that accurately describes his music as well.