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Herlin Riley – Governed By Rhythm

Herlin Riley
Music Inside Out


“Everything in life is governed by rhythm,” says Herlin Riley, “Everything. (And) when you play the drums, the rhythms are quicker.”

Riley is quoting his maternal grandfather, drummer Frank Lastie – patriarch of one of the great musical clans of New Orleans. As musicians, the Lasties date back to the turn of the last century. They’ve played with Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Danny Barker, Jessie Hill, Barbara George, Mac Rebbenack, Ellis and Wynton Marsalis, the Hot 8 Brass Band and scores of other acts. And they seem poised to carry the New Orleans music tradition forward in nearly every direction.

Without a doubt, Riley is doing his part. After long stints with Ahmad Jamal and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, he’s now a band leader with three critically-acclaimed albums under his high hat. The latest is called, “New Direction,” and explores Latin influences in modern jazz.

Nowadays, Riley sees himself as an elder statesman of jazz. And in the spirit of drumming great Art Blakey, he’s hoping to inspire young people to embark on their own careers as band leaders. He says the best band leaders begin as sidemen, which is why he hires young and ambitious talent.

“I’m still writing music,” he says. “This is my intent to continue to put out music and keep my musical vision alive.”

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Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.