Alex Riel (13/9/1940 — 9/6/2024)

Alyn Shipton
Friday, June 14, 2024

Alyn Shipton pays tribute to the acclaimed Danish drummer who has died aged 83

Alex Riel – Photo by Gorm Valentin
Alex Riel – Photo by Gorm Valentin

During the period from 1963-1965 when he was in the house trio at the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen, the Danish drummer Alex Riel established himself as a world class player. Along with pianist Kenny Drew and (more often than not) Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass, this was the rhythm section that played and recorded with most of the visiting stars that played there.

The trio recorded in its own right under Riel’s name for the Danish Fona label, including a lovely version of John Lewis’s ‘Django’, but it reached a bigger international audience by backing well-known soloists. The albums by Ben Webster (such as Sunday Morning at the Montmartre or In a Mellow Tone) are among the tenorist’s best late work, his big throbbing sound gelling perfectly with this utterly dependable rhythm section. Dexter Gordon was another regular and it’s good to be able to see Alex’s playing at the time, in a 1962 film about Dexter, made at the club for German TV, and called On The Spot, where his drumming (along with pianist Harold Goldberg and bassist Benny Nielsen) also backs up Sahib Shihab and Swedish baritone player Lars Gullin.

There was big excitement last year when Elemental records brought out Bill Evans’ 1965 Danish performances under the title Treasures, and of course Alex was the chosen drummer for one of the trio sessions. Having started his professional career as an orchestral tympanist, and turned to jazz with a New Orleans-style group, Alex moved firmly into more modern areas of jazz in the early 60s. As well as the names mentioned, he also recorded (among others) with Don Byas, Archie Shepp, Wayne Shorter and Monica Zetterlund. He had a 10-year association with Palle Mikkelborg, and the two of them co-led a band at the 1968 Newport Festival. He then went on to play with Arild Andersen’s small group, and with Jasper Lundgaard.

In recent years he was an occasional visitor to the UK, appearing at the Bull’s Head with Art Themen and Peter King during the 2010 London Jazz Festival, for example. He worked with British trumpeter Gerard Presencer as a member of Mulgrew Miller’s “Danish” quartet, in a return to the Montmartre in 2012, the precision and speed of his playing undimmed with the passing of time. One of his most recent albums, made in 2021, is pianist Carsten Dahl’s tribute to Keith Jarrett, Our Songs (Storyville), which finds him alongside another former Montmartre regular, bassist Bo Stieff, and thoroughly justifying the Grove Dictionary of Jazz description of him as "the most experienced of Danish drummers".

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