Ben Riley was born in 1933 in the state of Georgia and his family moved to New York City when he was four years old. Ben made his record- ing debut in 1961 with Johnny Griffin.
In his nearly 50 years on the scene, Ben's drumming has had a subtle quality that is unmatched. His sparse, sometimes jagged, and comedic drumming can be traced to his one-time employer Thelonious Monk, whose "Live At The It Club" shows Ben in high form. Riley made many recordings and circled the globe several times with the legendary bandleader.
Pianists loved playing with Ben Riley. His off-kilter rhythmic vocabulary is featured on Eternal Spirit and Shades, with pianist Andrew Hill. The list of great pianists that have called on Riley's accompaniment is almost endless: Ahmad Jamal, Billy Taylor, Alice Coltrane, Abdullah Ibrahim, Hank Jones, Roland Hanna, Red Garland, and Larry Willis are just the beginning of the piano players who have dialed Benís number.
But it is Ben Rileyís telepathic relationship with pianist Kenny Barron that is extra special. It is with the collective band Sphere that Barron and Riley (along with Charlie Rouse and Buster Williams) have played for many years. They have many recordings under their belt as a band, with "Four For All" and "On Tour" being standouts. You can also hear the rhythm section of Riley and Barron (with bassist Ray Drummond) offer first-class support of Stan Getz on "Yours and Mine" and Eddie Harris on "There Was a Time, Echo Of Harlem".
It is not only pianists that desired Benís perfect support. In fact, it was a piano-less recording on which Ben participated that became a renowned jazz classic. Sonny Rollins "The Bridge" is Riley at his understated peak. He supports the very different soloists Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall with splendor and extreme taste. "The Bridge" captures Benís specialty of burning high on a low flame. That being said, Riley can also turn it up with the best of them. This is evidenced on Benny Golson's outstanding "Time Speaks" (with Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw), and Gary Bartz' aggressive "There Goes The Neighborhood".
Whether Ben is hitting hard or tippin, his strong and musical pulse is never lost. He is often heard playing flat rides and thin china cymbals, and he controls their every vibration with a deft touch. That touch is on clear display when Ben picked up a pair of brushes. Also recommended are the many recordings he did with the Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin Band, especially "Lookin At Monk" and "Griff and Lock".
Ben Riley has not remained content with his sideman status. In the 2000's he has finally become a bandleader. He has combined two of the approaches for which he is best known (Sonny Rollins' quartet with guitarist Jim Hall with the music of Thelonious Monk), in a piano-less Thelonious Monk "tribute" band, which has made two critically acclaimed recordings. In this band, Ben was exposing a band of deserving young talent, while playing unique piano-less arrangements of lesser-known Monk tunes (written by veteran trumpeter Don Sickler) to sold-out crowds around the world.
From the list of musicians that Ben has supported, it can be concluded that it is not only pianists that love playing with Ben Riley, but saxophonists, trumpeters, bassists, and just about any musician who has a strong need for tasteful support on the bandstand or in the recording studio.
His career and his musicianship supports the statement that Ben Riley is the supreme New York jazz drumming accompanist. He has set the standard for all of the freelance jazz drummers that have followed him.
November 18, 2017: Ben Riley R.I.P.