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Ben Riley's Monk Legacy

By Published: November 7, 2006

AAJ: How did it feel to be playing Monk's music without Monk?

BR: Well it was different; quite different, but it was an experience for us to bond together because Kenny, Buster and I had come together working with Ron. So now it was different to bond with Rouse and it fit right away. As soon as we had our first rehearsal, it just fit, so we knew right away that we had a quartet because we all had a good feeling and it was just a lot of love everybody was giving.

AAJ: Okay. Now let's jump forward to the present and talk about your current endeavor reviving Monk's music, Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet. How did the band come together?

BR: Well, as you know, I had a quartet with [guitarist] Ted Dunbar, [vibraphonist] Steve Nelson and [bassist] Kiyoshi [Kitagawa] and that was beginning to take off and then God took Ted away from us, so I was trying to figure out another way or find another guitarist or do another thing with the group, so that I could put the group back together. While I'm trying to get this together Mr. [trumpter/arranger Don] Sickler called me—because we had done with Thelonious' music, doing a big band thing with Thelonious' music. We did like Chicago, we did Detroit and then we went to Europe with the band with the same kind of instrumentation Thelonious had when he first went over with the big band and we used different piano players. Mal Waldron was the first pianist that we used in Chicago at the Chicago Festival and it just got so we couldn't afford to keep it going, not with the guys that we had—Johnny Griffin and [altoist] Phil Woods. We couldn't afford to pay all these people. [laughs]

So Don Sickler kept bugging me talking about, you know, I think we ought to do this again and why don't you do it and we get a guitarist, 'cause he knew I liked playing a lot.—I had been playing a lot without piano players. I started that with, oh boy, why can't I call his name right now. He and his brother, his brother played bass and he played the trumpet, and that's when I met [guitarist] Jim Hall.

AAJ: Art Farmer.

BR: Art Farmer. We were in Art Farmer's band with no piano. So we started that and then I went with [saxophonist] Sonny Rollins and then Jim Hall again. He was the reason I got in, I think, with both of them. Because Jim Hall suggested to Sonny to hear me and Sonny knew who I was by face, but he didn't know my name. So when he saw me he said, "Wait a minute, man, you're the guy who lives uptown. I didn't know you played no drums. He said, "I've been hearing your name and he said, "We're recording tomorrow. [laughs] And that's how I got in his band, going to a record date the next day. No rehearsals; The Bridge (RCA, 1962) was done right in the studio. So that's when I really started thinking about playing without piano players and Thelonious came around to hear us a couple of times with different groups that I was in. He'd come and stand in the back of the room and then he'd leave, but he'd come down and stay in the back of the room and listen to what was happening. And then he came down after I went with Sonny and then came with him we went down to see Sonny—because he liked Sonny a lot, too.

So that's how we got all of that together and then Don said, "Let's try this, let's try this. So, finally I said okay because I was going to put a band together with [violinist] Regina Carter and I wanted to use cello, violin and vibes, bass and drums because I was hearing a sound like that. So he suggested let's give this a try first and that's how we started with the Monk Legacy Band.

AAJ: Did Don just come in with arrangements or did you talk about how you wanted to work things out?

BR: No, he had been doing what [pianist/arranger] Hall Overton had done, except he extended himself to putting the horns playing Thelonious's lines. He took it a step further than Hall Overton did because we weren't using any piano, so he put some things with guitar and then Monk's solos he put with the horns, the four horns. He had already kind of started taking off from where Hall Overton had left off. He had a different approach to it. So, when we started rehearsing I said, "Oh! The music kept coming back, I kept thinking about how Thelonious would play it and so I said, "Okay, let's give this a try and see how it works.

AAJ: Now that the record's been recorded you can really hear it. It came out really beautiful, I think.

BR: Yeah and they seem to be very pleased with it and we're doing a couple of other things because the DVD is coming out with this month with I think Oslo and Paris. I think two European concerts that I did with Thelonious are going to come out on DVD. So, Don is taking four of the tunes off of those dates and we're adding them on to them music that we're already playing.

AAJ: How do you feel you feel about your role in the band? You're a little bit more out front than you usually are; the arrangements kind of spotlight your drumming.

BR: Well I don't particularly like that [laughs], but that's Don Sickler. See I'd rather just play it like we did with Thelonious. It'll get that way, eventually, we'll mellow into it. Although, the reason why he wrote it that way, Sickler did, is basically, I did a lot of drum soloing with Thelonious. That's why Larry and I started exchanging eights and fours together, so we could break up all of that. I'm asking the guys, when they listen to the old Monk tapes that Don made for everybody to listen to, I say "Now, this is what Monk would do. You already know the notes, so disregard that and just play and put that feeling in there. You know, don't read it. We don't want to sound like we're on a Broadway show. We want to have that feeling in there. So it's coming; I can feel it coming around.

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