(LA Weekly, 2007)
Saxophonist Herman Riley died this weekend.
My favorite ever piece of writing I ever did in the LA Weekly was about Herman Riley. Just a couple years ago. Thought I’d repeat it here. It was the result of an incredible half hour interview, Herman just spinning out his life story. It was so hard to boil down to its very essence. But then I thought about how he did that in his playing, and the words just rolled out. When he read it he told me that it was one of the first times he had ever seen anything in print about him. Just about him. I couldn’t believe that this man, this extraordinary saxophonist, had been ignored by the jazz media who really ought to know better. This man deserved reams of coverage. But getting 200 words and a picture made him happy. He left a phone message I still treasure afterward. I don’t think a writer knows what to do then. You dash off a few words about a man, a man’s artistry, a man’s life and more people read that than have probably ever heard this man front a quartet. A couple hundred words are absolutely nothing. Not a damn thing. They didn’t even draw a crowd….Charlie O’s was sparse that night. I didn’t even show. This town never did realize just how extraordinary Herman Riley was. How he could move you. How you could get utterly lost in his ballad playing. His notes fade away into memory. And when we go, the memories go.
I once I asked him when he was going to record again. He only had a single album released sometime in the ’80′s and impossibly to find. He said he was thinking about it, but wanted to wait until he was ready.
Anyway, here’s the piece….
Lockjaw and Prez made him pick up the saxophone. This was New Orleans. There was a teenaged “Iko, IKo”, the very first. By ’63 he’s inL.A., playing Marty’s every night, and players—Sonny Rollins, everybody—dropping by, sitting in. Steady work with Basie and the Juggernaut and Blue Mitchell. Twenty years with Jimmy Smith. A million sessions for Motown and Stax, and first call for a slew of singers—that’s where you refine those ballad skills, with singers. Live he slips into “In A Sentimental Mood” and everything around you dissolves. There’s just his sound, rich, big, full of history, a little bitter, maybe, blowing Crescent City air. He gets inside the very essence of that tune, those melancholy ascending notes, till it fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh. You swear it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, that song, that sound, and you tell him so. He shrugs. “It’s a lifetime of experience” he says, then calls out some Monk and is gone.
That was it. 169 words. The most press he’d ever gotten in his lifetime.
Rest in peace, Mr. Riley. I can hear you now in my head, stretching out the notes of a ballad, till nothing remained but air and a room stilled, listening, feeling your feelings in their bones.