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Rhythm In Every Guise

Ben Riley with Thelonious Monk


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Ben Riley began his four-year association with Thelonious Monk on a moment's notice, joining the It's Monk's Time recording session devoid of any previous playing experience in Monk's quartet, or even the benefit of a single rehearsal.* Riley thus stepped into the drum chair of one of the greatest working jazz bands of the mid-1960s and made his mark without any apparent signs of adjustment or strain. Already an experienced professional, having played in the bands of luminaries such as Randy Weston, Sonny Rollins, and Stan Getz, Riley readily met the demands of Monk's thorny compositions and highly unorthodox piano style.

The quartet's version of the standard, "Just You, Just Me (Monk, Track 5) is a good place to begin to understand Riley's place in Monk's musical constellation. He unceremoniously enters during the first bar of the tune's bridge, and immediately transforms the pianist's oblique solo treatment of the tune's "A section into swing that's both persistent and unhurried. There's nothing dramatic or imposing about his drumming, yet the music starts to jump straightaway. The first thing you notice is how crisp and well-defined each drum and cymbal sounds. Every stroke is clean and distinct—especially the way in which the ride cymbal speaks in perfect clarity, moving right along with Larry Gales's walking bass line. The purposeful lack of clutter in Riley's playing is also attained by refraining from superimposing rhythm on top of rhythm, smacking the drums too hard, or making a lot of sustained sounds, such as cymbal crashes. Slight dynamic differences in hits to the snare serve to create just the right amount of tension. Riley's comping on the snare and bass drums is active but not hectic, sometimes cleaving to some of Monk's melody notes (for example, he hits the snare in unison where the words "Just You, Just Me would fall), or featuring one and two stroke asides which adroitly move around the pianist's phrasing. Overall, Riley plays as if he's deep inside of Monk's chain of thought, while displaying a great deal of individuality in a supportive role.

Although Charlie Rouse's sparse, carefully sculpted lines and Monk's abruptly cutting chords compete for the listener's attention throughout the course of the tenor saxophonist's three-chorus solo, Riley's accompaniment is essential in maintaining the music's flow. Walking a fine line between restraint and assertiveness, he offers unobtrusive support to the contrasting voices without favoring or getting too close to either one. Aside from the ever-present top cymbal, particularly during Rouse's first chorus, Riley knows exactly where to place snapping, one and two stroke jabs to the snare, and (to a lesser extent) the bass drum.

In conjunction with the ever-reliable Gales, the maintenance of a steady, workman-like groove is the defining characteristic of Riley's drumming during Monk's three-chorus solo. While the pianist lays out for a spell during the second chorus, instead of jumping in and filling up the empty space, Riley continues to lay down an impeccable beat, adding only minimal variations. As always, the clarity of the top cymbal is the most important part of his sound. Notwithstanding a brief skirmish between the snare and mounted tom-tom, for the first twenty bars or so he carefully rations accents, always staying inside of the cymbal's supple momentum. And later on Riley stays out of the way as Monk pushes out an unbroken string of quarter note triplets, the snare drum nearly silent right through the four-measure interval.

During Rouse's second solo on the track, Monk lays out (a common practice on the quartet's recordings and live performances), thereby leaving Riley's comping more exposed than before. The first sixteen bars is a prime example of the drummer's inconspicuous inventiveness. By utilizing subtle changes in sticking and dynamics, he both makes things move and takes nothing away from the tenor saxophonist's economical phrasing. Initially the ride cymbal is prominent, and Riley places it in such a way that we can continue to savor Gales's bass line. He spreads 4 or 5 snare drum accents out over the course of four bars. The strokes aren't loud or marked, and he brings the volume down a little each time. For the second four bars the top cymbal and drums are given equal stress. Although Riley is still not particularly busy, he creates the effect of constant friction and change. He sets-up a dialogue between the snare and bass drums by wrapping snare accents around pairs of 16th notes to the kick, and then ends the segment with a brief flurry of harder hits to the snare. The discourse continues throughout bars 9 to 16, and at one point the snare snaps pointedly, landing on top of the right spots of one of Rouse's more emphatic phrases, and soon followed by three weighty hits to the bass drum.

Throughout the out chorus of the standard "April In Paris (Monk, Track 2), Riley juggles time keeping and playful, irregular jabs that defy the steady beat. The metallic ping of his ride cymbal delineates the slow-to-medium tempo and works beautifully with Larry Gales's steadfast bass line. Over this solid foundation he plays flurries of strokes to the snare, plus occasional stick shots and hits to the tom-toms and bass drum. These aren't conventional fills but rather the semblance of a semi-autonomous rhythmic line that skates in and out of Charlie Rouse's rendition of the melody. Implying double time, Riley's brief, expertly timed and nicely spaced excursions never get too busy as they alternately rub up against and steer clear of Monk's active chording.

Riley's comping during Rouse's three choruses on "Lulu's Back In Town (It's Monk's Time, Track 1) is particularly interesting because of his constancy during the changes in Monk's accompaniment. For the first chorus Monk plays a dense thicket of chords that includes sharp, angular twists and turns; in the second he's still quite active but leaves a lot more open space; and for Rouse's last chorus, the pianist stays silent. Operating on the principle that keeping the band swinging is the only thing that really matters, Riley finds ways to inconspicuously but firmly establish his own identity amidst the strong presence of both Monk and Rouse. Although he stays inside of Butch Warren's bass line, the mix and match of a finite array of rhythms to the snare drum in a seemingly unlimited amount of combinations adds another dimension to the music. The constantly shifting assortment of accents and unerringly precise top cymbal are nearly as important to the band's sound as Monk's idiosyncratic chording and Rouse's robust solo lines. Riley's effectiveness lies in choosing not to stand out or compete with them. As usual, he doesn't readily jump into gaps left by his colleagues, but nonetheless often briefly asserts a degree of independence in his accompaniment instead of only echoing or working off of the others' lines.

Taking a cue from Monk's refusal to play anything the same way twice, Riley's drumming on a bursting-at-the-seams version of the out theme of "Epistrophy (It's Monk's Time, Track 7) is in a constant state of flux. Aside from his customary, effectively swinging manner, Riley is much more assertive than usual. Throughout the repetitive, two-bar phrase that comprises a large share of the melody (played by Rouse), time after time he offers fresh interpretations. It's remarkable how many variations Riley discovers as he works off of the relatively simple melody, staying close to Monk's line by placing accents in unison with essential notes, or moving freely around it—for instance, coming off of the top cymbal and filling two-beat gaps with brusque, three-stroke breaks to the snare and tom-toms. Varying the density of his cadences, for one repetition of the melody sometimes he foregrounds snare accents; in other cases, he emphasizes the bass drum.

Throughout Riley's extended solo on "Lulu's Back In Town (It's Monk's Time, Track 1), he simultaneously embraces and breaks loose from the discipline and restraints of conventional time keeping. Though his playing often becomes fast and convoluted, another swinging, accessible interlude is always just around the corner. Rarely crashing a cymbal, Riley utilizes every drum in his four-piece kit. In some places a steady beat is more explicitly stated then in others. His cadences are full of fitful stops and starts, abrupt changes in velocity, and pregnant pauses that leave the listener eagerly anticipating the next hit. Riley values spontaneity and goes wherever his imagination takes him, concentrating on a phrase, developing it for a brief period, then dashing off to something else entirely. He sometimes seizes an idea discovered while keeping straight time and runs with it, abandoning the top cymbal in order to pursue the new direction.

* My thanks to Don Williamson for his informative interview with Ben Riley from December of 1999 in AAJ.

Selected Discography

Thelonious Monk, It's Monk's Time (Columbia/Legacy)
Thelonious Monk, Monk. (Columbia/Legacy)
Thelonious Monk, Straight, No Chaser (Columbia/Legacy)
Thelonious Monk, Underground (Columbia/Legacy)
Thelonious Monk, Live At The It Club—Complete (Columbia Legacy)
Thelonious Monk, Live At The Jazz Workshop—Complete (Columbia/Legacy)

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