Like Art Blakey before him, drummer Herlin Riley is a natural leader with a sixth sense for identifying tomorrow’s jazz talent. His outstanding 2016 debut on Mack Avenue Records, New Direction, brought together a dream team of young stars who have all gone on to have thriving careers: the pianist Emmet Cohen, the bassist Russell Hall, the saxophonist Godwin Louis, and the trumpeter Bruce Harris. Now, Riley has reconvened that ace ensemble for an inspiring new album that doubles down on his sunny outlook on jazz’s future.
Perpetual Optimism, his sophomore outing for Mack Avenue, will be released April 12. JAZZIZ is proud to bring you this exclusive announcement.
The album, a collection of uplifting gospel melodies, punchy hard-bop grooves and Great American Songbook standards, marks the fourth leader release for Riley, a longtime sideman to Ahmad Jamal and a former member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Listen below to the track “Twelve’s It,” an homage to the iconic pianist Ellis Marsalis, who served as an early mentor to Riley while the young drummer was growing up in New Orleans. With a rhythm bed that shifts between second-line and swing, the tune captures in vivid sonic detail the soul and sophistication of Riley’s hometown.
In compiling influences for Perpetual Optimism, Riley turned to various sources — all of them close to his heart. In addition to Marsalis, the album also celebrates legendary Crescent City pianist and folklorist Allen Toussaint, whose enduring spirit enlivens Riley’s take on “Wang Dang Doodle.” The drummer also gives musical thanks to his family and his faith in God, most prominently in the gospel-tinged opener, “Rush Hour,” and the bittersweet “Wings and Roots,” which deals with themes of parenting and love across generations.
Tin Pan Alley is recognized through the inclusion of “Stella By Starlight” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” while a handful of originals — some featuring Riley in the singing role — touch on themes of romance and enduring faith.
For Riley, Perpetual Optimism is more than just a title on an album cover. It’s an abiding credo. In the two years following the release of New Direction, the drummer was confronted with one of life’s harshest realities — the loss of both of his parents. But in family, in music and in God, he managed to find hope.
“We’re constantly faced with obstacles and challenges in life that can be depressing or diminishing to our intrinsic motivation,” said Riley in a press release. “If we hold on to optimism, we can find the strength to overcome and move on to the next phase of our lives.”
If Riley has an overarching hope for Perpetual Optimism, it’s that his music helps spread the upbeat manifesto that he’s chosen to live by. “I always look forward, no matter what happens in life,” he said. “If you’re grieving or faced with an emotional challenge, keep in mind: If you’re still breathing, there’s a chance that you can do better. Commit yourself to perpetual optimism!”