‘A living legend’
Alex Riel was born in 1940 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and has since the sixties remained firmly established as one of the most significant and influential jazz drummers in Europe. His career began in the mid-sixties when he was the house drummer at the legendary jazz club ‘Montmartre’ in Copenhagen. The rhythm section also included bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and alternately pianists Tete Montuliu and Kenny Drew. During this time Alex Riel got to accompany a vast number of visiting international stars: Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Dorham, Don Byas, Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef and many more.
In 1965 Riel was chosen as the ‘Danish Jazz Musician of the Year’, and the award was presented to him by Duke Ellington. Shortly hereafter he released his first recording as a bandleader. It was a trio recording with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Kenny Drew which has now become collector’s item. In 1965-66 Alex Riel also toured in Scandinavia as a member of the renowned pianist Bill Evans’ trio with bassist Eddie Gomez. A DVD ‘Bill Evans Trio: The Oslo Concerts’ is now available.
Over the years Alex Riel has played and recorded with an impressive number of fine jazz musicians. His very first impression of jazz drumming was that of Big Sid Catlett and Zutty Zingleton, and this early influence is still perceptible in his playing. However Riel’s appearance with musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Archie Shepp, Michel Petrucciani, Gary Burton, John Scofield etc. has made him widely known as an outstanding modern drummer taking up the styles of Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and Tony Williams.
As his discography shows, Alex Riel has also been working quite a lot outside the jazz area. In the late 1960s he was a founding member of the legendary Danish rock group ‘Savage Rose’ with whom he toured extensively in Europe and USA. In 1969 the band performed at the original ‘Newport Festival’ in US, sharing the stage with James Brown, Jethro Tull and Sly & the Family Stone. The original members of Savage Rose were: Anisette (voc), Anders Koppel (org), Thomas Koppel (p), Flemming Oysterman (g), Jens Rugsted (b) and Alex Riel (d). Alex Riel stayed with Savage Rose for five years - and rejoined the band temporarily in the 90s. During this time he recorded several albums with them, including the album ‘Triumph of Death’ with music written for the Royal Danish Ballet. Savage Rose is considered to be one of the most significant Danish rock groups ever. Therefore their debut album was recently selected to be part of the Danish national ‘Cultural Canon’.
In addition to this Alex Riel has drawn attention to himself as a rock drummer through his long time work with the successful Danish singer and composer Sebastian. He was part of Sebastian’s so-called ‘super group’ that recorded several hit albums during the 70s and 80s and toured a great deal. Riel has furthermore been playing in a number of jazz-rock fusion bands like “V8” with trumpet player Palle Mikkelborg and “Santa Cruz” with rock guitarist Poul Halberg.
Ever since the late 50’s Alex Riel has played as a sideman on several hundred jazz recordings with various international artists. Since the mid 90’s he has been releasing CDs in his own name as well. These recordings are featuring contemporary stars such as Jerry Bergonzi, Michael Brecker, Kenny Werner and Mike Stern – but also ‘old’ favourites like trumpet player Harry Sweet Edison, sax player Charlie Mariano and bassist Eddie Gomez. However, his CD ‘DSB Kino’ from 1998 is featuring the 82-year old trumpet legend Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, one of Alex's all time favourites. And on ‘Unriel’ Riel is, once again, joined by legendary bass player Eddie Gomez. The powerful live recording ‘The Riel Deal’ from 1996 received a Danish Grammy for ‘Best Jazz Recording of the Year’, and a few years ago Alex introduced his very own trio on the CD ‘What Happened?’ which received 6 stars reviews and topped the list in Japan for best selling international record.
For the past decade Alex Riel has worked and toured with a vast number of smaller groups including groups that are led or co-led by himself: Dahl/Vinding/Riel, Alex Riel Trio, Alex Riel Quartet, Riel/Pasborg Drum Faces, fusion band Santa Cruz etc. Besides, he has been working a great deal with the Hamburg-based NDR big band featuring Abdullah Ibrahim. Alex Riel has also played various studio jobs and concerts with artists like Phil Woods, Charlie Mariano, Lisa Nilsson, Stefano Bollani, Palle Danielsson, John Taylor, Johnny Griffin, Jacky Terrasson, Andy Sheppard, Palle Mikkelborg, Didier Lockwood, Chris Potter, Gary Burton and Pat Metheny.
In September 2010 Alex Riel turned 70. This was marked by a series of birthday concerts in the re-opened jazz club ‘Montmartre’ in Copenhagen. Also, a book about Riel’s life and career ‘Alex Riel – manden bag trommerne’ (only in Danish for now) came out in 2010. After more than 50 years in the business he is as busy as ever playing, recording and touring in Denmark and abroad.
Alex Riel has received several awards and marks of honour throughout his career. In fact he is regularly being referred to as ‘a living legend’. It is however his youthful playfulness on stage and his obvious enjoyment of playing the drums that perhaps to this day characterize him more than anything.
In January 2011 Alex Riel became a member of the Artistic Council of Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen.
Alex Rielphoto: Gunnar Birk Kristiansen
Some of the artists who Alex Riel has