Although he was unaware of it before I wrote to ask for a copy of this CD, which I’d seen reviewed in Cadence magazine, saxophonist Jim Riley and I go back a long way together — to the early ’50s when I was a teen–age Jazz fan in Washingon, DC, and Jim was the youngest member of THE Orchestra, a spectacular big band comprised of DC–area musicians and fronted by Willis Conover, who later earned fame as the announcer for many years on the Voice of America’s nightly Jazz program beamed around the world via shortwave radio. Back in DC, Riley the alto soloist sounded a lot like Paul Desmond; nowadays he’s more closely aligned — in temperament and substance — to another Jazz colossus, the iconoclastic Lee Konitz, but one must survey the quartet numbers, “I Can’t Get Started” and especially “I Remember You,” to apprehend fully the striking resemblance. In the unlikely event that Konitz were to tackle Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” Riley paints a fairly credible picture of how Lee would adapt to a trad Jazz framework — and Jim’s overdubbed “duets” (alto, tenor) on “Earl’s Tune” and “Dr. Goldilox” call to mind the memorable face–offs between Konitz and another Jazz legend, tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh. “Earl’s Tune,” written by the late great trombonist Earl Swope, is one of several bows by Riley to his DC roots. Bill Potts, chief arranger for THE Orchestra, wrote “Shhhh” (arranged by Jerry Hirsch), composed / arranged “Not Riley the Blues“ and “Strange Flute” (both puns no doubt intended), and Riley penned the nostalgic “Blues for Washington.” “Blues” is followed by (in our opinion) the album’s pinnacle, “I Remember You” (I’d have led with that one), before closing with Horace Silver’s “Peace.” We’ve not mentioned Riley’s supporting cast, but should, as their competence greatly exceeds their relative anonymity. Pianist Andy Weyl, bassist Mark Simon and drummer Jill Fredericksen (on eight tracks) form a sturdy yet unobtrusive rhythm section, and Riley is given an earnest helping hand on various numbers by baritone Jerry Hirsch, pianists Geoff Cleveland and Ellyn Rucker, trumpeter Bob Montgomery, trombonist Al Hermann and saxophonists Johnny Lawrence, Franz Roehmann and Rebecca Hirsch. The vocals, by Cindy Williams (“The Nearness of You”), Rucker and Joni Janak (“Let’s Fall in Love,” “The More I See You”) are passable but no more than that. Riley, who was almost as slender as his alto during his days in DC, has put on a few pounds since then, and, we are happy to report, is a heavyweight improviser as well. He’s also an all–around nice guy (how many musicians include in their album jackets photos of the co–producer and recording engineer?). Welcome back, Jim; it’s been a long while since you were wailing and I was listening in DC, but hearing again that luminous alto of yours makes it seem almost as though it were only yesterday. One last personal note — if you don’t mind my saying so, Jim, at age 70 you’re playing better than ever.
Track Listing: Struttin
Personnel: Jim Riley, alto, tenor sax, flute; Johnny Lawrence, alto, tenor sax; Franz Roehmann, Rebecca Hirsch, tenor sax; Jerry Hirsch, baritone sax; Bob Montgomery, trumpet; Al Hermann, trombone; Andy Weyl, Geoff Cleveland, piano; Ellyn Rucker, piano, vocal; Mark Simon, bass; Jill Fredericksen, drums; Joni Janak, Cindy Williams, vocal.