After their audiences’ excited response to the excellent 2016-17 “Swingin’ with the CJO” season opener “New Orleans On Parade” (read my review here), Jazz Arts Group decided they had to get back to the music of the Big Easy again this season. The Columbus Jazz Orchestra presents “New Orleans One Mo’ Time” at the Southern Theatre March 15th through 18th – Showtimes and tickets are available here. The big band splendor of the CJO will be enhanced by two esteemed guests: New Orleans master drummer Herlin Riley and Columbus’ own Dixieland trombone virtuoso Vaughn Wiester. Along with four concerts, Riley and Wiester will also participate in the “Offstage at the Academy” series of artist conversations in the Jazz Academy facilities within the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, March 17th at 2pm – details and FREE registration are available here. Riley was kind enough to answer my questions via email about New Orleans, his career, and thoughts for young musicians – Keep reading to learn more and get ready to visit New Orleans one mo’ time with the CJO!
I’m excited for your upcoming performance with the CJO delving into the music of your native New Orleans! What is most exciting to you about New Orleans music?
Herlin Riley (HR): I’m always excited to play New Orleans music…for several reasons. I grew up hearing and feeling that music. It’s such an integral part of the culture of the city, and has influenced music around the world.
There’s a groove and a pulse in New Orleans music, that’s so spirited and infectious that it penetrates to the core of almost anyone who listens to and experiences it. And then there’s Louis Armstrong!!! Anyone who hears his music or watches him on film or YouTube will be moved, and their spirits will be uplifted. Even to this day, almost fifty years after his death, he still touches people. Most New Orleans musicians embody those same qualities, perhaps at a lower level, but that spirit is still there.
How did your gig with Ahmad Jamal come about? How did playing with such a legend early on help your development as a drummer?
HR: My gig with Ahmad Jamal came about as a result of his friendship with trumpeter Emery Thompson. In 1982, Ahmad came to New Orleans for a one-week engagement at the Blue Room in the Roosevelt Hotel. Emery was in the house big band there. When the drummer from Ahmad’s group left, he asked Emery to recommend someone. (Ahmad has always had an affection for New Orleans drummers). So he recommended me for the gig. I was with Ahmad from 1982-1987 and later from 2009 until the present time (when he accepts gigs). He’s 87 and currently diminishing his performance schedule.
Playing with Ahmad helped my development in many ways. Although as a drummer he allowed me the freedom to be creative. He never told me what to play, except on “Poinciana” and “But Not for Me.” Those two tunes had specific grooves. He influenced me through his example. He always played with intensity (not necessarily volume). I’ve tried to embody that quality in my playing. He taught me the power of dynamics. He taught me about tension and release in music. He taught me how to be respected as an artist. He showed me the difference between an artist and an entertainer. I owe a great deal of my development, as a man and as a musician to the great Ahmad Jamal.
I really enjoyed your album “New Direction” and how it blended classic and modern sounds. What inspired the sound of that album?
HR: My inspiration for “New Direction” came from my 40-plus years of experiences as a musician. I’ve been lucky enough to have played so many different styles of music – New Orleans brass bands, big bands, piano trios, quartets, duos, ragtime, tradition New Orleans jazz, Latin, reggae, funk, R&B, Brazilian sambas and bossa novas; collaborations with African groups and collaborations with symphony orchestras. I’ve played just about any kind of music that incorporates a drum set. In writing for “New Direction” the ideas just came into my head. I wrote them down and was blessed enough to find the right musicians to interpret my musical thoughts.
Do you have any plans for tours or new projects coming up in 2018?
HR: Yes, I hope to do more touring in the near future. Hopefully all of the pieces will fall into place to make that happen. I have a new recording being mixed, that features the core personnel from “New Direction” — Bruce Harris (trumpet), Godwin Louis (sax), Emmet Cohen (piano) and Russell Hall (bass). It will be called “Perpetual Optimism.”
Do you have any advice for young drummers/students thinking about getting into jazz?
HR: To all of the young drummers/students who are considering playing jazz/music – Do it because you have a passion for jazz/music. Embrace the journey of learning about the music. Don’t ever expect to arrive at a state of mind where you know it all. If you think you know all there is to know you will stop growing and never fully reach your potential as a musician. Study the history of the music so that you can learn the vocabulary and some different ways to approach different styles. As you develop you’ll have a solid foundation and background to build on.
For more on Herlin Riley, visit www.herlinriley.com.