Jun 20, 2019
Herlin Riley was more than satisfied with his career as one of the top drummers in jazz. Having worked with the likes of Ahmad Jamal in the mid-Eighties, he achieved recognition as Wynton Marsalis’ drummer in the second iteration of the trumpeter’s great groups in the Eighties and Nineties. It’s Riley you hear on the Pulitzer Prize winning Blood on the Fields, and he is the core of the group playing on the epic Live at the Village Vanguard mega-set. He followed Marsalis to Jazz at Lincoln Center, and participated in many of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s early successes.
Since 2000, Herlin has also stepped out as a leader in his own right. After two releases on the Criss Cross label, he signed with Mack Avenue, and now has followed 2016’s New Direction with Perpetual Optimism. Taking a page from Art Blakey’s play book, the 62 year old has surrounded himself with musicians half his age, including Godwin Louis (sax); Bruce Harris (trumpet); Russell Hall (bass) and most notably, pianist Emmet Cohen. The in-demand Cohen recently was awarded the Cole Porter Fellowship by the American Pianist Awards. More on that in a future podcast.
Perpetual Optimism allows Riley to mix his own compositions – and these are well-above average tunes in a post-bop mood – with tunes that allow him to honor those who came before him. Whether he is leading the band through a 5/4 take on “Wang Dang Doodle” or tipping his cap to an elder, Ellis Marsalis, with a cover of “Twelve’s It.” He brings his own flourishes to “Stella by Starlight”, allowing his young Turks to follow his lead in breathing new life into an old standard.
Podcast 683 is my conversation with Herlin Riley, as we discuss his band, the album, and the legacy of the New Orleans drummer in the jazz world. Musical selections from Perpetual Optimism include “Touched” and “Wang Dang Doodle”, plus “Down Home with Homey”, a Wynton Marsalis tune featuring Riley from Uptown Ruler: Soul Gestures in Southern Blue, Vol. 2 in 1988.