Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MD interview: Ben Riley on Monk, more

Here are some excerpts from a Ben Riley interview I hadn't read before- I didn't know who he was when the September, 1986 issue of Modern Drummer came out. It's a nice companion piece to the Frankie Dunlop interview I posted some time ago- they both have a lot about playing with Thelonious Monk. 

Time, feel

[Monk] had a great sense of time and rhythmic construction. I played two or three different ways in that band until I felt comfortable. Certain tunes dictated that I find another way to interpret the beat. I got more into a Shadow Wilson style of playing later on, because it left a lot of space for the other musicians to do what they
wanted, and it didn't dictate what was happening.

Thelonious would always drop one-liners on you. Instead of telling you what to do directly, he would give you a little hint, such as, "Because you're the drummer, it doesn't mean you have the best beat." He said, "You can't always like every song. Another player might like the song better than you; his beat might be better than your beat." What he was saying was that you should listen first before you take control and find who has the swing in the beat. And whoever has the best beat—that's the one you join.

One of the things I enjoyed about playing with Monk as well as Sphere was that we didn't always play the same tunes in the same tempo. When this happens, you can't come in and develop "cheats." Since each tune could be in a different tempo each time you play it, the things you played before won't fit the next time, so you always have to approach it differently. That's one of the great lessons that I learned from Thelonious. He played what we used to call "in between tempos." He used to say, "Most people can only play in three tempos: slow, medium, and fast." So, he played in between all of those, and we had to learn how to feel that beat. In certain tempos, you would be in big trouble trying to count, so you would have to feel the structure.

Monk's ballad test
In my first experience with him, in Amsterdam, we played "Embraceable You'' as a very slow ballad. Then he went into "Don't Blame Me." He stood up, looked over to me, and said, "Drum solo!" Fortunately for me, I had been working at the Upper East Side supper clubs playing a lot of brushes, and I like brushes. So when I played it, I didn't have to double the tempo, because I was used to playing slow brush tempos. I played it right at the tempo he gave me. When we were going back to the dressing room, he just walked by me and said, "How many people you know could have done that?" and he kept on going. You see, I had asked him for a rehearsal and he said, "What do you want to do—learn how to cheat?"

It was like going to school. He would always give you a little test. If he thought you had a hold on what was happening, he would do something to test you to see if you were conscious of where you were and what you were doing. At any given moment, he could do something so abstract that—if you weren't aware of what was happening—you were finished.

One night, Rouse, Larry Gales, and I were playing good, stretching out, and having a ball, and Monk was strolling. We were playing on the wrong beat, but we didn't realize it. We had lost the beat completely, and at first, I think Monk thought that we did it deliberately. Then, after he sat there for a few choruses, he got tired of listening to it. At the beginning of the next chorus, he dropped his hand down on the piano and said, "One!" That was like somebody slapping you in the face, [laughs]

Fortunately, Art Blakey had told me certain little tricks for getting back in right away.

JP: What did he tell you?

BR: He said, "Roll!"

Monk's concept
JP: As a leader, Monk had a strong personal concept. Did he expect you just to pick up on what he was creating, or did he look for ways to coax something special from you?

BR: For the drums, he allowed me the freedom to find what I could do to enhance what was happening. Plus, he never played anything he didn't think a player could handle. He would play just enough music, and then when he thought you were comfortable with that, he would step up to other things that might be more intricate.

Monk made me do that all the time.

JP: Made you!

BR: Well, rather, he would inspire me to do it, because he would leave space for me
and I had to do something.

So, yes, I guess in a way, he made me get involved and think of structural playing. I would think, "Okay, I don't know how long he is going to leave me out here, so rather than just do something haphazardly, let me structure it the same way as the song is structured." Each time I played the songs, I could add on because I had the melody in my mind, and I could embellish and stretch in and out of the melody. Working with Sonny Rollins got me into thinking about how horn players phrase, and I started to apply that phrasing to the drums.

Playing melodically
JP: You have been called a "melodic drummer." Do you think of your playing in those terms?

BR: There are theatrical players, and there are melodic players. I think I play the melodic style, because I worked with a lot of trios and singers. Also, in the era I came from, there were more "melody" songs. In order for a drummer to be really involved, he had to learn the melodies and verses to really be in tune with what everybody else was doing.

JP: Even your soloing shows this melodic structure.

BR: I think listening to Max Roach caused me to start doing that. If you really listen to Max, you'll notice that he plays the melody all the time. Many drummers who have experience with melody play "melodic" even if the tunes are more abstract. For instance, in Elvin's playing with 'Trane, there was a melodic structure set up. Even in Ornette Coleman's music—which a lot of people say is just "out"—it's all melodic if you listen to the rhythmic structure of the horns and rhythm section. I have always been conscious of playing with structure. Some people just go "out there" with no way of getting back. Sonny Rollins used to say, "When you play, it's like driving on a highway you've never been on before, but there are always landmarks. You have to make those marks."

"You have already learned how to play correctly; now play wrong and make it right." That is like life: There are situations in life that you can't find in any textbook. So the true challenge is to find what you can do with life when it goes wrong.

...some media people said discouraging things about Thelonious. When I first started with him, I read reviews. He said to me, "Until I tell you that you're not doing what I want you to do, don't worry about it. They don't know what I am doing, so they can't know what you're doing." So that kept me from being overly concerned about the media. Everyone would love to have the media be enthusiastic, but it takes longer for some people to get the attention and some players never get it. I have heard players who I thought were some of the world's greatest, and no one has ever heard of them. So at least I am fortunate that I have had some visibility through Thelonious.

Kenny Clarke
...the biggest impression came the night I heard Kenny Clarke. From then on, I tried to be everywhere
he was working. I loved the way that he was not over the top of anyone, no matter who he played with. He was always right underneath and would always build. He uplifted the music without overpowering anyone, and that is what impressed me about him. I decided that was the way that I wanted to play. But most important, I wanted to be a well-rounded player.

The first time I met Kenny Clarke was at Minton's. I was playing, and I looked out in the audience and saw him. I tried to play as best as I could and as much stuff as I could think of. When I got off the bandstand, I went over to meet him and he said, "Yeah! That was wonderful. Let's go downtown and hear so-and-so." I said, "I can't. I have to stay here and work." He said, "Work? You mean to tell me you're going to play something after that?" [laughs] It made me stop and think. He was telling me that I had to take my time and use my space—put it in order. You can overplay without realizing it. You have to learn what not to play.

JP: It seems that an open mind and cool head are character traits that you needed for handling that gig. Many other players might have lost their cool if they were surprised on the spot with a ballad brush solo.

BR: I knew he wasn't trying to hurt me. In the era when we came up, nobody tried to embarrass anybody.

JP: That seems hard to believe. What about the famous cutting sessions?

BR: Other people called it a "cutting session." It was stimulating for you to play with another musician who was equal to or better than yourself and to find out just how much that person could really do. It was a friendly situation. Today, I sometimes feel hostility from players when they come in on someone else's job; it's almost like they're going to war. It used to be a war, but a friendly one.

JP: Like padded boxing gloves?

BR: Yeah, you were seriously trying to blow the other player away; don't misunderstand me. Everybody was trying to be the top, but it was not malicious.

JP: Do you think today's malicious situation is due to increased competition and the shortage of jazz work?

BR: No. The society as a whole is too violent. The whole value we once had for the Arts is not there. It has been made so much a business and so competitive that there are literally people stabbing each other in the back. For jazz, there's not that much work, and there's not that much even for crossover. It has caused a war out here. It is really hostile, and it has nothing to do with art. That's sad.

Harlem, community
There was music seven days a week, 24 hours a day. You could watch and learn from the masters, and get their good advice. There was always somewhere to play. When they strangled off Harlem, that killed it all because Harlem was the school yard. You could meet all the musicians there. All the uptown and downtown players would meet at those little clubs. You got a chance to sit in, too. In those days, we drummers hung out together. Today, you hardly see that anymore—that exchanging of ideas and experiences. One of the great things about working at all the black theaters was that we were all in that circle that worked New York, Baltimore, Philly, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Detroit. We traveled with one particular show, so people had a chance to practice with each other every day.

JP: Who were some of the drummers you used to share ideas with?

BR: Mickey Roker was one. Willie Bobo used to show me timbale things, and I would show him time things. Clarence Johnson was the best reader, so he would help us; he brought books to the theater every day. During breaks between shows, we went way up in the crow's nest away from everybody and worked on things.

A lesson the old masters taught me was that, every time you play to the public— every time you get on that stage— everything up there is serious. You don't get up there and not give your best. I'm out of that school, man. Even if I am feeling angry, I can't go up there and not give. It's sacrilege not to give. That is where the mental toughness comes in. Some leaders used to make you angry deliberately to make you handle the situation. You would have to go up and say, "I'm going to play so good that I will make him sorry that he ever said that." This business is hard on sensitive people who cannot sustain that kind of mental toughness; they will crack up, because there are too many people throwing darts at them.

The source
I am spiritually attuned to the Baptist, holy-roller music, because that's what's happening. That's the blues, and you can't get away from the blues if you want to play jazz. I didn't play at churches, but I attended. That's what made me begin my return to playing. I would listen to the choirs, and that would cleanse all of those negative things out of me. I still go. The only other place I have experienced that kind of feeling was in Africa when I was over there playing with Abdullah. We went to the bush and into a little fishing village. One night, the people gathered, brought their drums out, and we all played together. It was hypnotic. I knew drums were powerful, but I had never experienced that kind of power. They have a beat that is just—holy.

This is a God-given talent we have; we didn't just get it from school. We are given it as our part of this universe so we have to make use of it. I have seen a lot of young faces intently watching my every move. That makes me want to shine more, because I might do something that will make all the difference in the world to a young person. And if you have something spiritually uplifting to give to another human being that can help that person take one more step, that's really what it's all about. That's why I love music; we're only trying to give somebody a moment's pleasure. I don't think there is anything higher than that.

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