Ben Riley has died. He was 84. So, a good innings – sure. He was one of my favourite drummers. He is one of my favourite drummers. His playing – of course – lives on. So strong, so subtle, so supple, understated – and yet he was always right there, riding hard on the cymbal at times. And even when he was sitting back, hiding deep in the tune, he was playful, mysterious, a slight off-kilter thing happening, doing his own dance within the rhythm, around it, inside it.
Riley is best known for his work with giants of jazz – Thelonious Monk, Kenny Barron, Chet Baker, Ron Carter, Alice Coltrane, Red Garland…
Dig deep you’ll find him on great albums by Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin, Sam Jones and Andrew Hill. He was active with his own group – Sphere (a thinly veiled Monk tribute) – and recorded a small handful of records as a leader in his later years. He also popped up on a Michael Franks record. I remember doing a double-take when first reading the credits; then dropping the needle again swiftly, suddenly finding something in a record I’d almost dismissed on first listen.
Riley was that sort of player. He kept you listening. You could never quite tell what he was going to do. But you know it would be tasteful and – correct – even if it wasn’t quite the exact and obvious thing, often because of exactly that.
Listen to his playing with Sonny Rollins. Holly shit – he’s on those killer albums What’s New? And The Bridge – that might be where I first heard him in fact. And of course with Monk on so many, but for me especially it’s the record It’s Monk’s Time.
He’s also there when Chet Baker had lost his teeth, his looks, his fucking horn and most of his soul. But he wouldn’t ever lose the beat entirely. Not with Ben Riley in that seat.
He could play so lightly with sticks you’d have to put the needle back for a second listen, so sure it was brush-work on the snare.