Herlin Riley ‘New Direction’ (Mack Avenue) 4/5

herlin-riley“Whirlin” Herlin Riley was born in 1957 in New Orleans, into a musical family, and first began to play the drums at the age of three. There is no doubt that this rich musical heritage laid a solid foundation for the drummer, and despite this album’s title, it is perhaps the journey he has travelled over the years that shines through on the music performed on “New Direction”. The jazz foundations are undoubted, and the performances are rich with joyous invention, celebrating the many directions Riley’s love affair with jazz has taken him. From 1984 To 1987 Riley was a member of Ahmad Jamal’s group. He joined Wynton Marsalis in 1988 and has made recordings with, among others, Marcus Roberts, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr., George Benson and Bennie Wallace. “New Direction” is the drummer’s first release as band leader in many years; it was worth the wait.
For this album Riley chose originals and local favourites resulting in a heady mix of traditionally rooted modern jazz. “I have a radio in my head that plays melodies and tunes,” he explains, “then I sit down at the piano and work it out. Once you start writing and engaging in the music it takes you to different places.” Hence the title of the album, with its music dripping with New Orleans neo-bop, all smoothly integrated with jazz, funk and a touch of soul. In keeping with Riley’s admirable ethos of nurturing young talent, most of the musicians here are under thirty. The combination of trumpeter Bruce Harris and saxophonist Godwin Louis is particularly enjoyable throughout the album, serving up some mouth-watering harmonies and wonderful soloing. Pianist Emmet Cohen also shines, along with conga player Pedrito Martinez. There are some truly magical passages where Riley’s drums and Martinez’s congas combine, creating a mesmerising unity of percussive sound.

The title track opens the album and features some lovely guitar and bass work from Mark Whitfield and Russell Hall respectively. The groove is strong and the hooks are rife, all making for a catchy, enjoyable listen. As with most of the album there is such a feel-good vibe running through it all, it’s just infectious and can’t help but make you smile. “A Spring Fantasy” has a cool, gently smokin’ Latin groove to it with the two horns effortlessly entwined. I particularly enjoyed Louis’ sax solo on this tune, stylish and sophisticated. “The Crossbar” has that old Art Blakey-esque Blue Note feel to it, whilst “Shake Off The Dust” sounds more up to date in a late night jazz club kind of way. “Connection To Congo Square” utilises the drums and congas to brilliant effect, with African rhythms coursing through this effervescent piece of music. “Hiccup Smooth” once more combines the sax and trumpet extremely well, but it is perhaps the best example of a first-rate rhythm section at work here, just oozing class. The swinging “Harlem Shuffle” gives way to the closing track of the album, “Tutti Ma”, with its infusion of jazz, blues and gospel music. All in all, “New Direction” is a celebration of jazz, from its New Orleans traditions, right up to today’s worldwide musical influences- lovingly and joyously performed.

Mike Gates