Amidst Orlando's whir of industry intentions and its consequent wait of artistic anticipation, Kayonne Riley's career stands as a deserved anomaly. As one-half of early-'90s acoustic indie hopefuls The Implications, Riley was able to expand her creative side on her own terms and lay the foundations for her now-budding solo career.
But what has really set her apart has been her day job as program director of the University of Central Florida's radio station, WUCF-FM (89.9), where the even more historied institutions of jazz and classical music provide a strong musical foundation and inform the more technical ends of her own personal vision. The whole process seems remarkably in check.
"I grew up with a lot of classical music," explains Riley, of her Texas childhood, which explains her non-Florida-sounding drawl. "My mother had jazz records and 78s, lots of crazy jazz stuff. When somebody told me I could apply and work at a station that plays this stuff, I jumped at it."
Riley's mother was also a piano teacher, which meant that, influentially, Kayonne would be exposed to the discipline as early as her preschool years. A brief rebellion in high school eventually led her back to music, where in college she began writing songs on guitar. At that time she also took her first volunteer gig at Texas A&M's college radio program, beginning a two-pronged attack that has carried her through to her current professional success -- both in front of the mike and behind the board.
And a busy success it has been. Riley just wrapped up mixing duties on her first solo offering, "The Prophet Said to Boo." The pop-oriented songwriter travelogue casts Riley sometimes as a slightly less whimsical Rickie Lee Jones and other times as a more lively jazz interpreter in the current tradition of Diana Krall. Engineered and assisted by longtime friend and pianist John Marsden, "Prophet" is as strong a representation of Riley's influences as it is of her accessible -- and respectable -- pop promise.
"It took me five years to complete," Riley says with a laugh. "In 2000, John Marsden and I put on a big push to get it done. I had the money somehow to attend Full Sail, and I needed a year off, anyway. In that year, we finished my album. Then I got a real job."
In addition to her continued leading role in The Implications, she's also a member of a collaborative, Caribbean-inflected side project dubbed Boo Juice. The capricious affair throws Riley's affected delivery into percussionist Doc Elmo's gumbo of marimbas and congas to a dreamy effect. One nutty track, "Catherine Zeta-Jones," inspired a scheme on the day of said "Traffic" starlet's Michael Douglas nuptials. Elmo wanted to take over the station and play the track at exactly the time of the celebrated vow reading. Perhaps unfortunately, the plan never materialized.
Riley regularly travels the respectable professional musician circuit, which is currently experiencing a bit of renaissance thanks in part to Orlando's unshakable love for all things jazz. She's largely responsible for WUCF's current jazz leanings and credits Orlando's cultural diversity for much of that. But she also acknowledges the technical skill of some of Orlando's more revered musicians. She was recently asked to co-write a track for the debut full-length by Billy Joel drummer Liberty DeVito's jazz project The Fun(k) Club. The last cut ("Come to the Club") on DeVito's CD, "A Taste of Money," also features Riley's vocal.
"You can't help but be totally humbled and try to cop as much stuff as you can with players like Liberty DeVito," says Riley. "They have incredible tempo and imagination and solidness to their playing. That disciplines you to where you have to play the same way or you sound stupid."
Still, it's her work with Marsden that has afforded her her current artistic growth. When Marsden and Riley attended Full Sail together in '92, they completed The Implications' debut. At that time, Laura Freeman was the more acoustically devout half of The Implications (which has since expanded into full band), but she has since moved on ("She wasn't much of a rocker. I've started getting away with more songs like that," says Riley), returning to Texas and leaving Riley to pursue her own dynamic.; ;
Riley, likewise, assists Marsden's music career. He's the sound engineer for WUCF's two-year-old live music studio. The studio's recorded works have just been compiled for WUCF's first commercially distributed offering, "Live at WUCF: 20th Anniversary Concert Series." It's an adventurous document of live jazz, both local and international (Arturo Sandoval and Larry Coryell are present). The fully operational studio has since drawn some of the performing artists, like Jackie Jones and Roger King (King Tet), back to complete their own full-length recordings.; ;
But Riley doesn't mix her two venues. Her songs are not on the WUCF release, which she oversaw. Nor does the station play her music.
"I have a conflict of interest," she says. "Nobody has said that I couldn't play my music there, but I just don't think it would be right."
Instead, Riley embraces the independent distribution ethic proffered by Internet avenues like MP3.com, where artists are more directly involved with their musical influence than any business-minded sales manipulations.
"I've just started being more active with it," says Riley. "It's becoming better and better, because there's a whole network of people that want to review your songs. They'll say, ‘I have a radio station,' and, real quick, you send 'em a message. I've gotten a lot more going with it than I did without."
She jokes that she's in a competition with Madonna for the highest ranking MP3 contest. Miss M's current musical warble stands at No. 1, while Riley's "Dream" is a respectable No. 267. But those measurements of success are clearly not what's holding Riley to her musical path. It's more about being satisfied.
"It's about whether I'm happy or not; y'know, am I happy doing what I'm doing?" says Riley. "You evaluate where you wanna be each day, each week. You have to continually evaluate."