Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Ben Riley on musicality

Extended excerpt from Ben Riley's Modern Drummer interview from 1986, by Jeff Potter, in which he talks about melodic drumming, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and his other influences: 

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."

When you first start playing, you idolize certain players. So, at one time, I tried to play like Max Roach, and then I heard Art Blakey and incorporated that into my playing. Then I heard Philly Joe Jones, and that impressed me. But 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.

In the era I came up in, there was always someone around to inspire you or say something to you that would help you to think about what you were doing. They would make suggestions without making suggestions. 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.

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