b. 23 June 1952, London, England. As a child, Richards took classical piano lessons but at the age of 14, after hearing Thelonious Monk and Otis Spann, he taught himself jazz and blues piano. In 1979, Richards formed Spirit Level in Bristol, with Paul Dunmall (tenor saxophone), Paul Anstey (bass), and Tony Orrell (drums). In 1982, the band won first prize at the Dunkirk Jazz Festival in France, achieved recognition and success and its personnel remained remarkably stable for a decade. At the end of the 80s, a re-formed Spirit Level included Jerry Underwood (tenor saxophone), Mark Sanders (drums), and Andy Cleyndert (bass; later replaced by Ernest Mothle). A mid-90s version of the band, that retained Underwood and included Pete Kubryk Townsend (bass) and Kenrick Rowe (drums), toured throughout Europe.
In 1999, Richards formed a new nine-piece band, Great Spirit. The previous year, Richards had accepted a commission from The Shed, the arts centre at Brawby, near Malton, North Yorkshire, which had opened its jazz programme many years earlier with an appearance by Spirit Level. Richards’ new work, ‘Suite For The Shed’, was premiered at York University on 22 October 1999, the opening date of Great Spirit’s two-month tour, during which they were broadcast live by the BBC and they also appeared at the London Jazz Festival. The band recorded the suite for an album, its personnel featuring some of the leading musicians of the current London jazz scene, including trumpeter Dick Pearce, saxophonists Gilad Atzmon, Denys Baptiste and Tony Kofi, vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais, guitarist Dave Colton, bass player Davide Mantovani, and drummer Dave Ohm. Baptiste did not make the tour, being replaced on different dates by Ed Jones and Patrick Clahar. A second UK tour, in February 2001, followed, the band this time including saxophonist Pete King, bass player Tom Herbert, and drummer Sebastian Rochford. Richards’ writing and his group’s playing blend earthy, blues drenched hard bop with intelligent contemporary jazz sounds, the whole being vital and urgent and possessed of inner dynamics and great depths of soul.
From the early 80s, Richards played as sideman with numerous leaders and bands, ranging over blues, Latin jazz, funk, African music and contemporary jazz. Among them are Asuri, Beaujolais, Coup D’Etat, Dana Gillespie, Earl Green, Grooveyard, Mornington Lockett, Mark Lockheart, Claire Martin, Jim Mullen, Roland Perrin, Todd Sharpville, Andy Sheppard, Barbara Thompson, Keith Tippett, Jean Toussaint and Theo Travis. In 1988, Richards had formed a trio, with bass player Townsend and drummer Rowe. Later trio members include Dominic Howles (bass), and Andrea Trillo and Matt Home (drums). Also in 1988, Richards joined Otis Grand’s Dance Kings, touring European club and festival venues and recording Always Hot in 1988. He also appeared with guitarist Joe Louis Walker. In 1993, Richards formed a quintet, the London Blues Band, which included Jon Taylor (guitar) and Brian Iddenden (tenor saxophone). Meanwhile, Richards also established an ongoing working relationship with Austrian saxophonist Sigi Finkel. This began in 1996 with two duo dates for BBC Radio 3 and was followed by records and UK and European tours. Richards and Finkel are also co-leaders of Soundscape, the other members of this quartet being Phil Scragg (bass) and Marc Parnell (drums). In 1998, Richards toured Europe with guitarist Larry Garner, and worked with singer Kate Zaitz aka Q Bee.
In addition to his performance schedule, Richards has also been active in education for two decades, teaching jazz piano, blues piano and improvisation at various centres including London’s Goldsmiths College and Morley College. Several of his piano pieces have been published as part of the Associated Board Jazz Piano and Rock School Popular Piano syllabuses. Additionally, Richards has written several tuition books including Exploring Jazz Piano and Improvising Blues Piano. Richards’ musical interests are decidedly eclectic; in addition to his jazz and blues writing and playing, in 1998 he composed ‘Timetrap’, a contemporary classical piece for violin, cello and piano. His range continues to extend convincingly along fronts that would seen disparate in a lesser musician, but he brings to earthy blues the same level of musical integrity as that which he brings to adventurous contemporary improvised music. Considering his career in its totality, his organizational ability and drive, his performing and writing skills, as well as his commitment to music education, Richards remains as important and significant on the jazz scene of the early 00s as he was throughout the previous two decades.