Monday, October 8, 2012

He's the Riel Thing: Alex Riel (Another Lesson in Looking Beyond the Leader too)

It's easy to use puns in the title of this post, as Riel does it with his album titles -- Get Riel, The Riel Thing, Riel Time, the Real Deal. But anyway you slice it, he is the real deal, an outstanding Danish drummer with a long history of recordings, a terrific pedigree of players he has worked with, an impressive discography, many awards..... and barely any visibility in the United States.

And frankly, I didn't have him on my radar until recently, certainly not as a leader, but once I did I went back and found that I do have many of his outings in support of some first rate leaders. From that point I went out and located a number of his CDs and am vastly impressed by them.

Riel is a musical icon overseas and particularly in Denmark, where a book on his life in music was published in 2010. It contains his musical journey Alex Riel book releasestarting with the little boy who listened to Louis Armstrong while drumming along on a scooter helmet, to the seasoned musician now regarded as one of the most influential European drummers of all time.

Alex Riel was born in 1940 in Copenhagen, Denmark. His career began in the mid-sixties as house drummer at the Club Montmartre with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Tete Montoliu or Kenny Drew. He accompanied a wide range of visiting musicians such as Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Dorham, Johnny Griffin, Don Byas, Donald Byrd, Brew Moore and Yusef Lateef; and recorded with many of them. In 1965 Alex Riel released his first recording as a leader, and was chosen as the "Danish Jazz Musician of the Year".  In 1965-66 Riel toured Europe as a member of the Bill Evans Trio.

Alex Riel has played as a sideman on several hundred jazz recordings with names such as Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Ben Webster, Kenny Dorham, Dexter Gordon, while increasingly recording as a leader with contemporary stars such as Jerry Bergonzi, Michael Brecker, Kenny Werner and Mike Stern.

His live recording "The Riel Deal" (1996)  received a Danish Grammy for “Best Jazz Recording of the Year”. He received another award, the "Django d'Or 2001" in the category “Master of Jazz”. For several years Alex Riel has played in piano trios led by Danish bass ace Mads Vinding with pianist Carsten Dahl.  In 2004 Alex formed his own trio with Danish bass Jesper Lundgaard and the young pianist Heine Hansen.

So, without further ado, here are the CDs I have purchased recently, with some comments, along with a few that I had in my collection with other leaders.   
alex riel"Get Real" (Cowbell Music 2008) features Riel on drums, with Kenny Werner on piano and Pierre Bussaguet on bass. Anything with Kenny Werner to me is going to be great, and this does not disappoint. The music is straight-forward but freshened by both Werner's inpired improvisations and Riel's command of the kit in setting out a solid platform as well as some clever use of the cymbals, brushes et al to create some interesting dynamics. Some standards like "Always" and "If I Should Lose You", some songs penned by the members of the trio, and one semi-classical diversion "Polovetsian Dance" by Borodin. All first takes, all inviting music.

alex riel"Riel Time" (Cowbell Music 2008) expands the trio concept, which has Riel and Werner at the core and the veteran Jesper Lundgaard on bass with the outstanding U.S. saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi. This is a live recording of the group and the enrgy lifts the music to even higher levels. The band plays a number of Bergonzi originals and the result is explosive music with a great sense of group interplay and dynamics. Very fresh music, perhaps a bit more outside because of the live setting and Bergonzi's writing, but truly energized and spell-binding.

Riel-Celebration"Celebration" (Stunt 2000) is a live recording at the Copenhagen Jazz House celebrating Riel's 60th birthday, and features the trio of Riel, Werner, and Lundgaard once again. This classic group covers a range of standards and a classical piece credited to J.S. Bach, "Siciliana." Songs like "In Your Own Sweet Way", "Bye Bye Blackbird", and "On Green Dolphin Street" get extended  play, allowing for not only great group interplay but also for extended extrapolations and improvisations of the tunes. Werner turns "Autumn Leaves" into a classical rondo for a while before returning to its jazz roots, a lovely piece of improvisation. Werner of course is the major player on the piano, but there are strong plucked and bowed solos from Lundgaard, and Riel is always there keeping time, maintaining the rhythms and supporting the others, and taking solos that are diverse in their use of the various elements of the kit. He takes a short but powerful solo during "Bye Bye Blackbird." Familiar tunes played by talents such as three men possess makes for a nice listen, even if there are no great surprises or new territories to be covered. Just a great jazz trio having a good time, and you will too.

Riel: Dsb Kino"Alex Riel  DSB Kino" (Stunt 1998) is a very special piece of upbeat, classic swing jazz featuring Harry "Sweets" Edison on trumpet along with the piano trio of Riel, Roger Kellaway on piano, and Mads Vinding on bass. Edison was 83 at the time of the recording but sounds strong throughout as the group tackles a set of classics like  "Ain't Misbehaven", "Lover Man" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Tour de Force" with terrific energy. This is the most upbeat of the CDs mentioned in this post. "Just Friends" opens the set with an uptempo swing tune and each player brings energy and bounce to the tune. Vindings bass solo, Kellaway's bouncy, light touch, and Riels strong pulse and short bursts make this a great opener. The promise is kept throughout as Edison leads on each tune with his classy trumpet play, generally followed by the classic touch of Kellaway and then Vinding. This disc is pure fun.  

Alex Riel clearly knows how to put a band together and how to lead it from the back, as he demonstrates on the discs above. You can hardly go wrong with masters like Werner, Kellaway, Vinding, Carsten Dahl, NHOP, and Lundgaard as your trio partners. And then throw in Edison, Bergonzi and on other discs a number of other notables including Michael Brecker, and you have an outstanding discography that needs more attention in the U.S. 

And for toppers, look at this list of CDs he has played on as a supporting member and realize that this is a small subset of his total works, being just some of those I have in my collection:  

  • Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: Friends Forever (Sony 2005)
  • Jesper Thilo & The American Stars: vol 1 (Storyville 2005)
  • Jesper Thilo & The American Stars: vol 2 (Storyville 2005)
  • Dexter Gordon: Misty (SteepleChase 2004)
  • Johnny Griffin and the Great Danes (Stunt Records 2002)
  • Mads Vinding Trio: Six hands, Three Minds, One Heart (Stunt Records 2000)
  • Chet Baker:The Legacy (Enja 1987)
  • Herb Geller Orchestra: An American in Hamburg (Atlantic 1975)
  • Ben Webster Quartet: My Man (SteepleChase 1973) many more
  • Herb Geller Orchestra: Rhyme and Reason (Atlantic 1975)
With names like Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, and Johnny Griffin as leaders, not to mention the less well-known but wonderful Jesper Thilo CDs and the sounds of the veteran Herb Geller, it is a wonder that Alex Riel is not a household name around the world. For those who like straight jazz played by the best, try Alex Riel soon.

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