JAZZ FEST '08: Interview: Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet

by Frank De Blase, Rochester City Newspaper
June 4, 2008

Thelonious Monk's genius lies in the notes he didn't play. Melodies introduced at the beginning of a piece were seemingly left in the lurch, forsaken in the improv. In actuality they were always there; not necessarily played out in the open, but silhouetted within the man's phrasing and sweet chords as they flirted with the sour.

Tempo was another strong suit, as his off-time interjections created time signatures and feels that were as cool and clever as they were obtuse. Just imagine being the drummer playing by his rules.

Ben Riley was that drummer. A masterful cat behind the drums, born in Georgia and raised in Harlem, Riley was part of be-bop's second wave. He beat it with cats like Randy Weston, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Johnny Griffin, Ron Carter, and Sonny Rollins. But it's his tenure with Monk that really gives the stagger to this man's legacy. Riley played in Monk's group from 1964 to 1968, and appeared on three discs: "It's Monk's Time," "Straight, No Chaser," and "Monk's Blues." Not bad for someone who inadvertently joined the band.

Riley now tours with his Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet. And in keeping with the legend's abstract humor, The Septet features guitar and horns. It's a Monk tribute with no piano. We recently spoke to Riley about his upcoming show at the RIJF; an edited transcript follows.

CITY: Where did you first hear Monk?

Ben Riley: I was in junior high school and I had a record called "Carolina Moon." Max Roach was on it; that's the reason I got it, 'cause Max was one of my first inspirations. I played it and fell in love with it, and even my mother liked it. She said, "Boy, that's nice, who's that?" I said, "Thelonious Monk."

And not all moms dug Monk.

She loved music. She let me pick and choose what I wanted to hear. As a matter of fact, she would play the jazz station in the morning rather than come to wake me up. She'd just turn the radio on so I'd get up and go to school.

What about that record got to you?

That particular tune, "Carolina Moon," was a waltz. And Max, he had doubled up, he had overdubbed timpani on it. So it was very interesting. After that I started listening to him more often on records at first.

Monk was abstract and a bit weird for some, but you got it. Why?

Yeah, because he had a lot of sense of humor in his music. He'd always make you chuckle. He'd do things that'd make you chuckle and pat your foot, too. He was very rhythmic.

When did you first hear him live?

I heard him with Kenny Clarke and Shadow Wilson and Roy Haynes. I heard all three of them at the Five Spot. I used to go down there every evening to listen to them play. Then I worked at the new Five Spot with three different trios, and I was in there almost six weeks opposite him.

It was funny, 'cause he'd come in and look at the bandstand, and he'd go back in the kitchen and wouldn't come out 'til it was time for them to go to work. I worked with Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance, and Walter Bishop, Jr. So the third group I was with, he came in that night, he looked up on the bandstand, and he said, "Who the hell are you, the house drummer?" Those are the only words he spoke to me, and he went back in the kitchen.

But you got to work with him soon after that.

So that Monday I get a call, and it's his manager telling me that they were at Columbia Studios, and that Thelonious wanted me to come and finish the record date with them. So I went down and I did the date. It took us two days to finish.

No rehearsal?

No. He waited 'til I set my drums up. I got a sound check from the engineer, he came out and started playing. He didn't say nothin' to me at all. And the second day, when we finished the date, he said, "Do you need any money?" So I said, "No, I can wait for the check." And he said, "Well, I don't want anyone in my band being broke." I said, "Excuse me?"

So he just assumed you'd be in the band?

Yeah. Then he said, "Do you have your passport?" I said no. And he said, "You better get it. We're leaving Friday for Europe." I had to rush out of there... back then it was a little easier to get a passport quick.

So your first shows with Monk were overseas. What was the first show?

We played at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The place was just jam packed. We hadn't rehearsed. He didn't speak hardly to me on the plane. The first tune he played was "Don't Blame Me," a ballad. And then he got up from the piano and said, "Drum solo." A ballad with a drum solo. I said, "My god." And I played the drum solo.

What'd you do?

I had been playing on the East Side with trios and whatnot, so I was very familiar with brushes. So I brushed the solo. "Whoa, this man is putting me to the test already."

Obviously you passed.

When I first started playing with him, I played like Roy Haynes, and I thought, "Nah, better change that." And he said, "You're not playing that Roy Haynes shit no more, huh?"

Once in the group, did you rehearse then?

We never rehearsed. Like he said, if you rehearse you start playing things you know, and you don't put anything creative in it. You don't feel good, you only play what you know fits.

Then how did you approach new material?

He just had his tunes. And when he felt you knew a song, you were playing it well, he'd add more songs in. Every time I played I tried to give it my best, because I knew he was listening.

Would you ever repeat a song from night to night, or was the set always changing?

If we did we never did it at the same tempo. He was a master, a genius at tempo. You couldn't play it the same way twice because it would never be at the same tempo. And then he set the mood by feeling the room. I remember him telling me, "There's always one person in the audience that's listening to you more than everyone else. When you look around the audience and you see that one that's really into you, you play to that person." I do that now, too. When you see a group of people pattin' their foot, I play right there for them.

All these years later and you're still playing Thelonious Monk's music?

Yeah, and I don't mind, because it needs to be played. The audience loves it, because they're not hearing the instrument the person made famous, because we have the guitar and the horns doing all the lines.

No piano?
No piano. We were in Europe a year ago, and a couple of people came up to me and said, "With the way you guys are playing and phrasing, I hear the piano. It's almost like I hear Thelonious up there."