NEW YORK AMSTERDAM NEWS July 22-July 28, 2004 page 21 Jazz Notes by Ron
Riley leads piano-less Monk!
bother to ask legendary drummer Ben Riley what jazz musicians he has
performed with in his long illustrious career unless you have hours of
free time. "I pride myself in being a good accompanist," noted Riley. He has
played with a wide variety of musicians, including Duke Ellington, Stan
Getz, Randy Weston, Alice Coltrane, Ron Carter, Jim Hall, Ahmad Jamal,
Sonny Rollins, Woody Herman, Gary Bartz, Junior Mance, Nina Simone and
Billy Taylor among many others. "The main objective is to give the person
youíre working with what they want to hear," explains Riley. Itís been
a great honor to have played with such wonderful musicians. I must be
doing something right because they keep calling me.
However, it was his association that lasted almost five years with the
great Thelonious Monk that secured Rileyís undeniable place in jazz
history (1964-68). He toured extensively with the pianist and recorded
some of Monkís now classic Columbia albums: "Underground" (1967-68),
"Straight, No Chaser" (1967; one of Monkís most famous compositions which
inspired a film-documentary with an appearance by Riley), and "Itís
Monkís Time" (1964). The latter introduced Riley to the band and its
release was roughly concurrent with Monkís cover profile in Time
Magazine (Feb. 28, 1964).
Tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse was always Monkís mainstay, while his
bassists varied from John Orr to Butch Warren and Larry Gales, who Riley
recommended. Gales proved to be one of the few bassists who understood
Monkís harmonic concepts.
"While playing with Monk I was influenced by his rhythmic phrasing and
simplicity. His phrasing and rhythms were difficult but he didnít make
it hard," explained Riley. "He made you a part of the composition and let
you be just as creative." On July 27 through August 1, Riley will celebrate
his 40th anniversary of playing with Monk at the Village Vanguard (they
played together at the famous jazz club a total of 166 nights), under the
headline of Ben Rileyís Monk Legacy Septet. The master drummer and
arranger Don Sickler will introduce piano-less explorations of Monkís
music. The septet, fueled by Rileyís rhythmic intensity, will include
trumpeter Sickler, alto and soprano saxophonist Bruce Williams, tenor
saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, baritone saxophonist Jay Branford, guitar
Freddie Bryant and bassist Essiet Okon Essiet. They will explore Monkís
rhythmic language of unorthodox harmonies with challenging twists and
turns and beautiful simplicity, playing his standards and many of his less
well-known compositions with vitality and attitude.
"I have played piano-less for quite sometime with Steve Nelson, Sonny
Rollins, Ted Dunbar and Ron Carter, says Riley. It brings a different
color to the mix."
Sickler noted, "I have been blessed to be able to arrange Monkís music
over the years, his wife Nellie Monk, who has since passed, was
significant in helping me get all his incredible music. She would have
loved this upcoming performance." Riley and Sickler have been articulating
the pianistís music together since the early Ď80s, primarily
performing in European venues. They came up with the piano-less concept
last year and then realized the timing was perfect for Rileyís 40th
anniversary celebration. Sickler, who also did musical arrangements for
Charlie Rouse, stated, "We started out with four arrangements and now we
have 24; this is really going to be an exciting engagement and working
with Ben is always a great honor. Heís lived Monkís music."
Riley, a native of Savannah, GA, played regularly in Harlem and
Manhattanís renowned Five Spot with such musicians as Andy McCloud and
Walter Bishop, Jr. It was the Five Spot where he worked opposite Monk in
three different trios. "Every night after my sets I would stay and watch
Monkís movements and listen to his every note. He never spoke to me,
until one night he asked if I was the house drummer or something and kept
walking," explained Riley with a laugh.
That week, Rileyís gig ended and on Monday, he received a call from
someone saying Monk wanted him to come downtown for a recording session.
The drummer, thinking his friend was playing a trick on him, hung up the
phone. The person called back; it was Monkís manager, Harry Colomby, who
explained the situation in detail. "I jumped in a cab with my drums,
arrived at the studio and was told where to set up. Monk comes in, sits at
the piano and just starts playing, never saying a word," Riley recalls the
story with boyish excitement. "After the session, he asked me if I had
money, noting he didnít want anyone in his band broke. Then he asked if
I had a passport, to which I answered no. He says, well weíre leaving
for Europe on Friday. Thatís when I realized I was in the band - man
what a great feeling."
Although, Monk never really said anything to Riley, itís clear that
during his gigs, the legend was paying close attention and was impressed
by his great musicianship. His rhythmic voice and laid-back style has
earned him a reputation as one of the most significant drummers in jazz
history. While Riley is well respected among his peers and fans throughout
the world, his reputation in America is somewhat understated since for
most of his career he has been a consummate sideman as opposed to a
bandleader (although at various times he has been an exceptional leader as
well). In the Ď80s Riley was the key element in the group Sphere, which
consisted of Kenny Barron, Buster Williams and Charlie Rouse. In 1992, his
hometown of Savannah inducted him into their Coastal Jazz Hall of Fame.
"With Monk I learned the significance of projecting to the audience. His
advice was to find one person that is listening and play to that person,
explained Riley. I always do that for every performance. He added, The
best part of my experience with Monk was we became real friends. To
continue his musical legacy at this upcoming Village Vanguard engagement
is definitely a joyous honor."
PAGE 18 FOR
THE WEEK OF JULY 23-29 THE NEWARK STAR-LEDGER FRIDAY, JULY 23, 2004
to the Monk
Former Thelonious Monk drummer Ben Riley carries on the legacy with a
Don Sickler stands behind 71-year-old drum master Ben
Riley, who pays tribute to his former boss with his (Thelonious) Monk
Ben Rileyís Monk Legacy
One of the high points of drummer Ben Rileyís 50-plus-year career was
playing with Thelonious Monk from 1964-67. Now, with his Monk Legacy
septet, the 71-year-old drum master is getting another chance to play the
music of Monk, the jazz composing and piano giant famed for such songs as
íRound Midnight, Straight, No Chaser and Ruby, My Dear. Itís sort of
like going home.
"Hearing Theloniousí music again has opened me up to the way I was when I
was with him, said Riley, whose ensemble opens a six-night stand Tuesday
at the Village Vanguard in New York I feel him in this music."
"To play Theloniousí music again is also wonderful, because Don (Sickler,
the septetís trumpeter and arranger) is approaching it in a different
way, said Riley in an interview from his home in Suffolk County, Long
Island. His music is so beautiful."
Sickler, 60, also feels thereís something very special about Monkís
It feels so fresh, yet itís 40 and 50 years old, he said in a separate
interview from his home in Manhattan. This again emphasizes the genius of
Thelonious Monk. He was so far ahead of his time.
The new septet addresses such Monk vehicles as "Straight, No Chaser,"
"Rhythm-a-Ning," "Bemsha Swing" and "Epistrophy"
in a unique manner. The band
comprises trumpeter Sickler, alto saxophonist Bruce Williams of Montclair,
tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, baritone saxophonist Jay Branford,
guitarist Freddie Bryant, bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and Riley, but no
The piano-less concept has, long interested both Riley, who has led a
quartet with guitar, vibes and bass, and Sickler, who was looking for a
new way to tackle Monkís oeuvre.
"Not having a piano gives us a lot more open spaces (silences) to deal
with, which is like playing with Thelonious," said Riley, who also played
with such aces as Sonny Rollins and Woody Herman. He used a lot of space.
"We also realized if we eliminated the piano, we could explore something
thatís never been explored: the way Monkís accompaniment,
rhythmically, harmonically, lit fires behind the rhythm section and the
soloist. That comping lends itself to orchestration," said Sickler.
Sickler started on this tack by transcribing Monkís piano comping, and
his solos as well, from several recordings, mainly those that Riley played
on, such as the exemplary "Live at the It Club" (Columbia). He then deftly
orchestrated what Monk played for the four horns and guitar.
Heard in rehearsal at Sicklerís studio last Sunday, the bandís
versions of "Rhythm-a-Ning" and "Gallopís Gallop" crackled with portions of
Monkís piano heard in an entirely fresh, and completely engaging, way.
To this writer, who heard Monk several times, including during the It Club
recordings in Los Angeles in 1964, the writing indeed evoked the sound of
Monk in action.
The orchestrations have knocked Riley out, said Sickler.
"Once he started
to experience it, hear some of Theloniousíbackgrounds behind the solos,
it lit Ben on fire," he said. "It was like hearing Thelonious thrown back at
him. It became very exciting. Once we saw that smile on Benís face, it
inspired all of us."
Riley, who was close with Monk, and was his everyday companion on road
trips, has helped by offering pointers on how Monk might have played
things. "He tells us this music has an attitude," said Sickler.
our case to keep the intensity but soften it. You canít be blasting away
or this music wonít work."
For his part, Riley said heís "having a ball."
"These guys are very
enthusiastic; and are really coming around it to this music. They want to
do it, and thatís wonderful."