Ben Riley: 1933-2017
Monk’s main man was the epitome of swing and style.
Jazz drumming great Ben Riley died last November 18. He was eighty-four. Although best remembered for his high-profile 1964–67 tenure with the iconic pianist Thelonious Monk, Riley enjoyed a fruitful six-decade career supporting a lengthy roster of jazz luminaries, including lasting associations with Alice Coltrane, Abdullah Ibrahim, the tenor team of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin, the New York Jazz Quartet, bassist Ron Carter, and pianist Kenny Barron.
“The one word that personified Ben is swing,” Barron says. “He had an incredible cymbal beat, just so smooth. He had a great sense of humor and was an incredible dresser; he had style.”
In addition, Riley worked with Junior Mance, Andrew Hill, Ahmad Jamal, Stan Getz, Roland Hanna, Eric Dolphy, Woody Herman, Kenny Burrell, Duke Ellington, Walter Bishop Jr., Sonny Stitt, Billy Taylor, Kai Winding, Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Jim Hall, Milt Jackson, Ray Bryant, Chet Baker, Red Garland, Ricky Ford, Bill Barron, Mary Lou Williams, Ravi Coltrane, Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Barney Kessel, Bobby Timmons, and many others. As heard on a discography exceeding 300 titles, Riley was a drummer of irresistible energy, inventive coloration, melodicism, dynamics, and spontaneous flexibility.
Riley was born in Savannah, Georgia, on July 17, 1933, and moved to New York City with his family at age four. Harlem’s Sugar Hill district was fertile ground for absorbing the sounds of jazz, inspiring Ben to take up drums in his early teens. He soon frequented local jams and gigs.
In 1954, following army service, the drummer returned to New York. Married and with a child on the way, he took a job as a film editor but was quickly bored. Riley’s wife encouraged him to allow himself a year to take a shot at being a full-time musician. “I haven’t looked back since,” Riley told MD in 2005. By 1956, he was an established pro, working with pianist Randy Weston and other name leaders.
Often praised for his clarity of sound, dynamics, and cymbal touch, Riley credited his experiences in small lounges where drummers—crammed alongside diners—were forbidden to use sticks. He aimed to beat the house rules via technique. “My touch came from that,” he told MD. Barron adds, “He wasn’t a loud drummer; he kind of simmered. The water would still be boiling, but he would simmer.”
Riley’s cachet rose with his stint alongside Sonny Rollins. His elegant drumming can be heard on the tenor giant’s classic 1962 album The Bridge. Riley cited the saxophonist for influencing his sense of phrasing and coloration. He fondly recalled a night when trumpeter Freddie Hubbard attended a Rollins gig. Pulling Riley aside, Hubbard said with a grin, “What are you doing playing melody?”
In 1964, Riley received what he initially thought was a crank call, instructing him to hurry down to Columbia studios to record with Monk. During the session, Monk never addressed the drummer. At pack-up time, he asked Riley if he had a passport, because “they were leaving for Europe on Friday.”
Without any rehearsal—which he soon learned was the norm—Riley premiered with Monk at London’s Royal Festival Hall. His uncanny bond with Monk was captured on numerous Columbia releases including Underground (1968), a set demonstrating Riley’s quirky playfulness that complemented the pianist’s eccentricities so well.
After playing with Ron Carter’s group, Riley and bandmates Kenny Barron and Buster Williams (bass) worked extensively as a trio. Monk alumnus Charlie Rouse (sax) joined in, and Sphere was born. Debuting with the LP Four in One, Sphere released seven fine Riley-fueled discs between 1982 and 1997. Riley also appeared on many of Barron’s own albums, including Green Chimneys (1983), where he’s heard driving in peak form.
It wasn’t until later in his life that Riley stepped forward as a leader, with the trio outing Weaver of Dreams (1996), followed by Memories of T (2006) featuring his Monk Legacy Septet, and the quartet date Grown Folks Music (2012).
Although the soft-spoken Riley was an inventive soloist, he stressed that he cared most about accompaniment. As Kenny Barron notes, “He was really all about support.”
With every artist Riley supported, his drumming emanated vibrant joy. Explaining to MD why he loved music, he said, “We’re only trying to give somebody a moment’s pleasure, and I don’t think there is anything higher than that.”
by Jeff Potter
Pat Torpey: 1953-2018
The soul of hit-makers Mr. Big.
This past February 7, the drummer, backing vocalist, and founding member of the hit hard-rock band Mr. Big, Pat Torpey’s passed away from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was sixty-four years old.
Before forming Mr. Big in 1988 with bassist Billy Sheehan, guitarist Paul Gilbert, and vocalist Eric Martin, Torpey played with a number of artists, including Belinda Carlisle, Ted Nugent, and the Knack. The drummer recorded six studio albums with Mr. Big before the group disbanded in 2002. Its hits during this period included “Alive and Kickin’,” “Just Take My Heart,” and the breakthrough smash “To Be With You.” The band reunited in 2009 and went on to release What If… and …The Stories We Could Tell; 2017’s Defying Gravity featured Matt Starr on drums due to Torpey’s health issues.
Torpey released two solo albums internationally—1998’s Odd Man Out and 1999’s Y2K. For more information, head to moderndrummer.com.
Pioneer of solo percussion.
The pioneering artist, percussionist, and poet Z’EV—born Stefan Joel Weisser—passed away in Chicago last December 16. Z’EV sustained a career principally as a solo percussionist. He sometimes collaborated with others, including the avant-garde guitarists Elliott Sharp and Glenn Branca, but solo performances were the main vehicle for his music between the late 1960s and his passing. As a pioneer and prominent figure of the late-’70s to early-’80s wave of industrial music, Z’EV explored innovative styles of percussion as a performance art. He wrestled on stage and in galleries with raw materials like plastic, titanium, and steel while also incorporating more conventional drumming techniques. His real achievement, however, was “catacoustic” performance, in which he would create and sustain harmonic environments through his percussion that would enable him to effectively “play” the room in which he performed.
Z’EV lived from gig to gig, flying all over the world to explore and bring his sound to new audiences. As such, he went long periods without really having a home. He retired in the ’90s for a period while he took care of his mother until her death. But in the 2000s he returned to the road with new fervor and played more shows than he ever had before. There are abundant videos on YouTube of his performances, and a documentary film about his art by filmmaker Ellen Zweig, Heart Beat Ear Drum, was released in 2015.
Z’EV performed thousands of shows and recorded innumerable albums both as a solo artist and in collaboration with many other musicians of note. A heavy smoker for years, he contracted COPD and was in a slow decline due to inhibited breathing that forced him to alter his performance concept and execution in recent years. After he sustained injuries during a train derailment while traveling to Chicago in 2016, his health precipitously declined.
Z’EV could legitimately make the claim of being the first artist to make a living as a solo percussionist—and doing so on his own terms, in an unconventional manner that had never been seen before and will likely never be seen again. He was a first-class artist, a genuine thinker, a good friend, and a collaborator with many musicians, me included. He had an indelible influence on countless players, composers, and artists in many diverse genres, as evidenced by his impact on the solo artist and drummer Scotty Irving of the Clang Quartet. “Z’EV was a mentor and friend,” Irving tells Modern Drummer. “His influence on me and many of my other influences is beyond words. He’s one of the first people I ever saw who performed with non-instruments, and his one-man shows partly motivated me to pursue his same path.”
Many who saw more limelight than Z’EV did in his time are deeply in his debt. He was a true original and shouldn’t be forgotten.
by Karl J. Palouček