Ben Riley 17/07/33 – 18/11/17


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This year's Thelonious Monk centenary events have rightly focused on the immense stature of the creator of some of the most idiosyncratic themes in the jazz canon, and, consequentially, those who accompanied him also share the spotlight to a degree. Drummer Ben Riley, who recently passed away, was a key member of the pianist-composer's band for some four years and made fine contributions to the albums cut between the mid and late 1960s that include gems such as It's Monk's Time, Monk and Underground. On all of the above Riley ably demonstrates the impressive attributes of a drummer who had absorbed the innovations of modern jazz spearheads such as Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, all the while bringing his own strength of character to the table. On a classic such as 'Straight No Chaser' his wonderfully fluid but inventively nuanced snare and cymbal patterns effectively serve the dry, insistent wit of the piece, while his ability to drive an arrangement without straying into bombast is also notable on other performances.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, Riley relocated to New York City as a boy and, like several post-war African-American musicians, did a major part of his musical apprenticeship in an army band, before finding work with stars such as Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and Mary Lou Williams. His sideman credits also included more leftfield artists such as Andrew Hill, Alice Coltrane and Horace Tapscott. During the 1970s and 1980s he became a member of two veritable supergroups that did much to keep alive the flame of acoustic post-bop: New York Jazz Quartet and Sphere. The latter was a highly significant ensemble that took Monk's middle name, Sphere, and essentially started as a repertory band, before evolving beyond new scores of his tunes to create very engaging, original material on a string of consistently strong albums, such as Flight Path (on the influential Elektra Musician label). Riley was joined by fellow Monk alumnus, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, as well as pianist Kenny Barron and double-bassist Buster Williams. The band's spirited and dynamic live concerts were memorable, as was the cohesion if not democracy among the players. Riley may go down in jazz lore as a great sideman, but his vital work with many cutting edge leaders, above all his ability to make everybody around him sound good, place him in the firmament of under the radar improvising artists.

– Kevin Le Gendre