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.
Throughout Gordon, O'Neal, and Dillard's solos on the standard "Just Friends, Riley's embellishments range from barely perceptible to stirring. In response to Gordon's slurred phrase, Riley makes a hissing sound on the hi-hat, followed by a light thump to the bass drum; then repeats a variation of the same pattern. It's simple instead of showy, and hardly catches the ear. Near the middle of O'Neal's first chorus a light two-stroke figure to the partially closed hi-hat, repeated six times, generates a momentum of its own and partially steps outside of the pianist's orbit. During the first eight bars of O'Neal's second chorus, he makes a dozen irregularly spaced hits to the snare and cymbal in no particular order. The cymbal is struck light enough so it doesn't ring very long, and Riley still manages to keep some semblance of a ride cymbal pattern going. Once again, he neatly balances support of the pianist and a semi-autonomous rhythmic line. In the most striking example of the track, on bars seventeen through twenty-four of Dillard's (this time on soprano sax) second chorus, Riley plays hard accents to the snare and toms in groups of three, leaving three beats between each set. It sounds like someone deliberately stomping up a few stairs, pausing for breath, then going at it again.
A blazing, up-tempo hard bop composition that includes an obsessively repetitive tag at the end, Riley's "New York Walk (Herlin Riley, Watch What You're Doing) contains some of the drummer's most adventurous sticking and footwork. In a remarkable performance, Riley is everywhere at once, nailing down the beat in tandem with Rodney Whitaker's rock solid bass line, taking direction from Farid Barron's percussive chords and, at the slightest provocation, jostling the soloists with a canny mixture of pinpoint precision and ragged abandon.
The fireworks commence on the fourth chorus of Victor Goines' solo. When the tenor saxophonist begins a series of terse, halting notes, Riley confronts him with firm hits to the snare and bass drums that are more spread out but clearly connected to Goines' line. As Goines becomes more insistent Riley suspends conventional timekeeping and, like someone wildly throwing punches, unleashes a welter of strokes to the snare, toms, and cymbals. For the duration of the sixth chorus, while Goines obsessively repeats variations of an eight note phrase, Riley jumps on him with a busy, clattering pattern to the bell of the cymbal and jutting beats to the snare.
Herlin Riley, Cream Of The Crescent (Criss Cross Jazz) Herlin Riley, Watch What You're Doing (Criss Cross Jazz) Wycliffe Gordon, Cone's Coup (Criss Cross Jazz) Peter Beets, New York TrioPage 3 (Criss Cross Jazz)
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