WBGO Radar

Herlin Riley: New Direction

Herlin Riley, Drummer, Jazz, New Direction

Drummer Herlin Riley has heard the beat his entire life - the rhythms of drummers who came before, the spirit of the church, the rhythms of life that surround all of us every day. In his hands those rhythms are given meaning and direction, always new, always engaging to those of us lucky enough to bear witness to his talents. I remember seeing him over the years as a member of Wynton Marsalis groups, large and small, inciting a head-bobbing, hand clapping, foot tapping fervor among entire audiences caught up in his expression.

In his liner notes for "New Direction", writer Alan Colon calls Riley a griot, a storyteller, bringing together past rhythms of music in history, from Africa to New Orleans to Harlem, with an evolving sense of syncopation, blending different time signatures in a way that just gets up inside anyone who listens. It's the kind of rhythmic spirit that makes crowds gather. It's the spirit that moves the ten tracks here from start to finish, perhaps instilling in the listener, moves you never knew you had.

For "New Direction" Herlin has gathered a group of young talent, including trumpeter Bruce Harris, saxophonist Godwin Louis, pianist Emmet Cohen and bassist Russell Hall. Guitarist Mark Whitfield jumps in on the opening title track, where a cymbal shimmer moves to a shimmy, with all the spirit this bayou master can bring.

As Riley explains, "I have a radio in my head that plays melodies and tunes, then I sit down at the piano and work it out. Once you start engaging in the music it takes you to different places."

"A Spring Fantasy" shares a Latin feel, heightened by the first of 3 appearances by conguero Pedrito Martinez. Saxophonist Godwin Louis, a native of Haiti, and pianist Emmet Cohen make this an infectious easy breezy.

With its 6/8 polyrhythmic feel, "Crossbar" showcases Riley's drum work and Pedrito's congas providing a group fever that brings out your best dance moves.

With it's complex syncopation, "The Big Banana" references Riley's powerful golf club swing, with a group arc giving this mover a great lie.

The gentle feel of "Shake Off The Dust" encourages a reflective feel for the listener to put aside all the daily interruptions of life for a fresh clean look around.

Martinez and Riley right away set us up for "Connection To Congo Square", a spirited up tempo for the group to look back and pay forward on this historic New Orleans gathering place where enslaved Africans gathered to make drum-centered music.

Herlin's powerful soloing work shines on "Hiccup Smooth", where a syncopated 3/8 groove meets 4/4 swing, defining moments to why these are the musicians Riley chose for his new direction.

Pianist Emmet Cohen's "Harlem Shuffle" is a showcase for the collective fun of this record, guaranteed to make the walls sweat.

If you've ever seen Herlin Riley in performance you know the wish of being able to work a tambourine like he does. The New Orleans classic stuff strutter "Tootie Ma" brings this one home in a fashion and spirit that will have us hoping that Herlin Riley has many more stories to share.

Herlin Riley's "New Direction" comes out February 12 on the Mack Avenue label.

- Gary Walker / Morning Jazz

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