Herlin Riley's Swinging, Modern Style Shines On 'Perpetual Optimism'

Apr 22, 2019
Originally published on April 23, 2019 11:15 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley has played in some high-profile settings with pianist Ellis Marsalis and Ahmad Jamal, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and New York's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Herlin Riley is also a bandleader who makes his own records. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead really likes his latest.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "RUSH HOUR")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Drummer Herlin Riley's quintet with Bruce Harris on trumpet. It's from the album "Perpetual Optimism." Riley's side folk are native or transplanted New Yorkers, but the leader lives in his hometown New Orleans. That city's musical culture stamps the band's interplay, rhythmic buoyancy and high spirits. In New Orleans music, drums and drumbeats reflect and represent centuries of African American folkways and culture. That's a legacy Herlin Riley takes seriously. He honors the elders.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWELVE'S IT")

HERLIN RILEY: (Rapping) Music is the thing that can heal your soul - black or white, rich or poor, young or old. It came to me at an early age, with me all my life as I turned each page. I got a lot of knowledge from folks who taught me. We need to pass it on to people we teach. A great musician who taught a whole lot of fellas - he wrote this tune. His name is Ellis Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, great Ellis Marsalis, the Ellis Marsalis. The dad of Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis.

WHITEHEAD: On his album "Perpetual Optimism," Herlin Riley does a couple things drummer-leaders like to do, such as playing drum solos within the band instead of all by himself or playing in odd time signatures. Riley plays Willie Dixon's Chicago rave-up "Wang Dang Doodle" in 5/4 meter, which adds an extra beat to every bar for extra swagger. It's Riley's only other vocal on the album. Check out those slinky horns behind him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANG DANG DOODLE")

RILEY: (Singing) Tell automatic Slim. Tell razor-toting Jim. Tell butcher knife-toting Annie. Tell fast-talking Fanny. We going to pitch a ball down to that old union hall. We're going to rump and trump 'til midnight. We're going to fuss and fight 'til daylight. We're going to pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.

WHITEHEAD: Herlin Riley wrote most of the music for his new album. The standout composition "Be There When I Get There," with its rhythmic and interlocking phrases for trumpet and alto saxophone, sounds like drum music orchestrated. The parts fit together like different components of a drum set. Russell Hall is on bass.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "BE THERE WHEN I GET THERE")

WHITEHEAD: The members of Herlin Riley's quintet are close listeners, working together in subtle ways to feed the band's percussive texture. There's a good example on their airy reading of the standard "You Don't Know What Love Is." Behind Godwin Lewis' alto solo, new star pianist Emmet Cohen chimes in with high notes behind Riley's heavy beats. That adds a little extra ping to the snare drum sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT LOVE IS")

WHITEHEAD: We don't have time to skim all the highlights of Herlin Riley's "Perpetual Optimism." The music is solidly in the suave and swinging modern style, but Riley's New Orleans-infused jazz has its own distinct character. The leader's upbeat nature and attention to detail shine through.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "PERPETUAL OPTIMISM")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "Perpetual Optimism" by drummer Herlin Riley's quartet. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLENDA JACKSON: Now we have divided in three our kingdom.

DAVIES: Glenda Jackson's now starring as King Lear on Broadway. Terry Gross talks with the 82-year-old two-time Oscar winner about her life and career. Jackson took 23 years off from acting to spend two decades as a member of the British Parliament. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Therese Madden directed the show. Terry Gross returns tomorrow. I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "PERPETUAL OPTIMISM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.