New Orleans-native Herlin Riley has played with Ahmad Jamal in the 80s and on a lot of recordings by Wynton Marsalis. The drummer is also a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and played on albums by George Benson, Harry Connick Jr., Cassandra Wilson, Marcus Roberts, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and a lot of others.
“New Direction” is his third solo outing and the first on Mack Avenue and he has assembled a young group of musicians and a couple of special guests. Guitarist Mark Whitfield is heavily featured throughout the funky opener, which is also the album’s title track. Pedrito Martinez is pushing the piece forward with his exalted percussion work. The midtempo Latin piece “Spring Fantasy” has a cute brass line with Bruce Harris on trumpet and Godwin Louis on alto sax swinging mildly, but effectively on this mellifluous dream-like ditty. Pianist Emmet Cohen shows his virtuosic skills in a fancy solo here. And the percussion work is sublime, all engrossed and laid-back.
The heavily percussive “The Crossbar” has Pedrito and the leader commanding the fierce groove, with Emmet skillfully underscoring the swampy and sweaty cadence. And “The Big Banana” is a whirlwind of rhythm changes and drum madness. The slow grind of “Shake Off The Dust” is a welcome change of pace. The elegantly shuffling groove with neat percussion backing is a great vehicle for both Emmet and Godwin to show their chops and conducting fine solos while managing the warm and reserved melody.
Drum fans will be delighted to make the “Connection To Congo Square” where Herlin’s New Orleans roots shine through on this fiery romp. I like the things Bruce has to say on trumpet here. There is another sophisticated rhythm-changing cut, the Emmet Cohen-penned “Herlin’s Hurdle” which is the only track on the album where the leader has an ample solo section, but the tune is never really evolving.
With “Hiccup Smooth”, another syncopated, burning piece where Herlin is playing with time changes, and “Harlem Shuffle”, again written by the pianist and re-working the late 50s/early 60s killer jazz-jam sound, there is more of that remarkable energy and joy in the group’s playing. And Herlin himself can be heard on vocals on the New Orleans-style album closer “Tootie Ma”.