Stephen Riley: Hold ’Em Joe


It’s billed as a kind of tribute to Sonny Rollins. There are clear connections, for example, in the inclusion of “I’m an Old Cowhand”, which made presumably its jazz debut on the Rollins album Way Out West from 1957, his first recording with just bass and drums in support. Part of the attraction here lies in the way Stephen Riley, whose soft and fluted tone made me describe him previously as a cross between Ben Webster and Stan Getz, tackles the project.

On the surface, it’s hard to find parallels with Rollins.  The opener “I Never Knew” comes closest, oddly so (or maybe not) in that it is one of the few tunes here Rollins has not recorded under his name – others by my reckoning are “You’ve Changed” and “Ghost of a Chance”, though some readers may know different. The tenor sound is still miles away but Riley gets the phrasing absolutely spot-on.

In this context, the obvious comparison is with respective versions of “I’m an Old Cowhand”. Riley gives it none of the Rollins swagger and keeps the theme mostly under wraps. Indeed, at times one feels he deliberately avoids direct emulation: if he plays around with melodies as written, a Rollins trademark, this is done in a more fragmented form as on “Where or When”. He edges somewhat closer on the title track, if only by maintaining the strong calypso rhythm throughout.  

Riley is a singular talent, not least for his twists on the standard repertory, and this is well up to scratch.

I Never Knew; Where or When; Hold ‘Em Joe; Darn That Dream; Three Little Words; Woody ’N’ You; Almost Like Being in Love; You’ve Changed; I’m an Old Cowhand; Ghost of a Chance; The Song Is You (66.37)
Riley (ts); Jay Anderson (b); Adam Nussbaum (d). Paramus, New Jersey, April 2017.
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