Over the past seven years, Herlin Riley has recorded four compact discs, two under his own name and a pair as a sideman, for the Criss Cross Jazz imprint. Riley's work on these recordings is significant because it stands outside of a long-term, high profile association with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra which ended in 2005. In addition to providing points of entry into his skills as a composer and bandleader, the discs serve as prime examples of a drummer who checks his ego at the door yet is able to shape a small band's progress in myriad ways.
A master of color, nuance, and dynamics, Riley mines his drums and cymbals for every possible timbre, often making somewhat unconventional combinations seem perfectly natural. For instance, after the brilliant sound of the bell of his ride cymbal in a busy Latin rhythm introduces "Bird Life (Herlin Riley, Cream Of The Crescent), Riley's efforts behind the soloists consist mostly of a similar beat played on the drums' shells.
At the risk of oversimplification, Riley's ongoing juxtaposition of support and interaction in improvisational contexts can be broken down into three categories. He often plays time amidst the bass line on the ride cymbal for long stretches behind a soloist, adding accents that barely make a ripple in the steady pulsation. In other instances, he zeros in on the beginning of the pianist's chord sequence or a soloist's phrase and makes succinct, complementary points. When the occasion allows, Riley plays bold figures of his own invention in varying lengths that add another distinct voice to the music.
From beginning to end, "Need Ja Help (Herlin Riley, Cream Of The Crescent) is one of Riley's most fully realized performances on the Criss Cross sides. There's nothing spectacular about his drumming yet every stroke is significant, and it's hard to imagine another trapster pulling it off in the same way. Beginning on Reginald Veal's bass introduction and then alongside Wycliffe Gordon's muted trombone treatment of the "A section of the melody, Riley plays rim knocks on beats two and four (he later adds them on the first beat) and inserts a buzz stroke to the snare (with the snares off) on the third beat. Far removed from the conventions of modern jazz timekeeping, the contrast between the brusque snap and the flaring, lower pitched drag has a relaxed and somewhat lopsided feel.
The rim knocks continue throughout a sixteen bar bridge, the buzz strokes disappear, and Riley introduces a variation of the conventional jazz cymbal pattern on the bell of a partially closed hi-hat. Even as these strokes start a more open, strutting movement, the choked metallic sound maintains a certain restraint. When Gordon's solo commences and Veal lands squarely on all four beats, the same rhythm (played somewhat louder) on the ride cymbal loosens things up a little more and the band swings for the first time. It also helps that the recurring rim knocks are abandoned in favor of discrete snare accents that are positioned around the cymbal.
Cone's Coup, a recent release by Wycliffe Gordon, offers different perspectives of Riley's comping behind soloists. "Yaht Doo Daht Ditt is a good example of his precise, unobtrusive medium-to-up tempo playing. During choruses by tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard, pianist Johnny O'Neal, and Gordon, he places the ride cymbal just under Reginald Veal's bass line. Accents are usually more felt than heard and fills are kept to a bare minimum.
Taken at a somewhat slower pace, "Sweet Spot is notable for Riley's patient ride cymbal and ingenious use of buzz strokes. On the fourth beat of the fourth bar of O'Neal's second chorus, he drills a buzz and repeats it in the same place on bars five and six. Refusing to be hemmed in by any particular pattern (even when it works), just when you expect to hear it again he defies expectations by simply offering one prominent single stroke. Riley utilizes a complete sequence of buzz strokes during the beginning of Dillard's second chorus. For three consecutive bars he places them between beats two and three, and executes another on the fourth beat in conjunction with a light cymbal crash. Riley ends the arrangement by using the buzz/cymbal crash combination right on beats two, three, and four of the following measure. The somewhat bulky texture makes an impact without becoming cumbersome or distracting the listener from Dillard's chain of thought.