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 Recording of the Week, Herlin Riley Perpetual Optimism


New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley’s Perpetual Optimism was exactly what I needed this week, with its unbounded enthusiasm and joie de vivre nicely soundtracking glorious sunlit early morning drives to work. I didn’t need to chew on anything challenging or angsty, just gimme brilliantly played, joyous bop. The irony being that 10 years ago I would most likely have been sniffy about exactly this kind of mainstream jazz (before actually listening obviously), electing instead for something far more gnarly, probably with a smudged Rothko-esque cover, so clearly there are benefits to getting older (and having to file a review each week).

As a member of Wynton Marsalis’s Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, Riley has been at the heart of the US mainstream for over 30 years. He was instrumental in developing the complex drum parts for his boss’s epic Blood on the Fields (which now, in the era of Kamasi Washington, doesn’t seem quite so excessive), and also played with Ahmad Jamal, Markus Roberts as well as crooner Harry Connick Jnr. This is Riley’s fourth release with his own band, following up the infectious New Direction from 2016, and is terrific fun. I know I keep trotting out the “this would be a great album for non-jazz fans to sample” schtick, but again – they really should. It’s the bop equivalent of Pharrell Williams Happy, impossible to be glum to (and in no danger of becoming overly ubiquitous like said single). The playing is bright and breezy, impeccably played and styled but there is nothing stiff or academic about it. It has the finger poppin’ excitement of prime Horace Silver and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and as with Blakey, Riley has a knack for selecting stunning young sidemen, who are reconvened for this session.

The background to the album is not so sunny however, as both of Riley’s parents passed away recently, following a period during which he was their chief caregiver. It is testament to his innate positivity that his music transends this sadness to deliver an album so full of celebration and love, despite a few melancholic moments. Bruce Harris’s muted trumpet on You Don’t Know what Love Is is pitch perfect, and where in lesser hands standards like this tend to become mere genre exercises there is no danger of that here, with saxophonist Godwin Louis’s more tongue-in-cheek treatment of the theme deftly re-calibrating the heart-on-sleeve trumpet.

This thing is chock full of little surprises that reward repeat listens - take Riley’s version of Willie Dixon’s blues staple Wang Wang Doodle which goes all 5/4 on us, swinging wonderfully, Riley stepping up to growl the vocal in a winningly un-affected way (apparently reluctantly), whilst the final track 12’s It is unadulterated gospel soul-jazz that would have Jimmy McGriff itching to slather in Hammond honey.

The soloing doesn’t rest on its laurels, all the players serving up inventive contributions throughout, continually delightful and of a piece with the tone of the record: concise, and with sleight of hand touches. I loved Emmet Cohen’s funky hand-plucked piano strings on Wing and Roots, which I thought was a guest on guitar at first. Russell Hale’s bass shines on this track too, bantering with Riley’s drums with an ease that only years of playing together could bring. And behind it all is Riley’s mastery of the kit, unassuming and nuanced.

In a nutshell - it’s sunny outside so I’m going for a bike ride along the canal after I have posted this with Perpetual Optimism on my cans. Cracking stuff.

Herlin Riley

Available Format: CD