Pianist Jim Ridl is emerging as an innovative force in jazz, a pianist of the highest caliber, a creative composer and improviser, and one of those rare musicians who stretches the art form even as he honors the established traditions. Technically and improvisationally formidable in performance and recordings, he is equally comfortable with his own groups as with his collaborations with such innovators and jazz icons as Pat Martino and David Liebman .
In true jazz tradition, Jim’s music tells a story and expresses a myriad of nuanced emotions. At the same time, Jim thrives on spontaneous musical expression and experimentation whose only purpose is to stretch the limits of what’s possible. His CDs, such as Blues Liberations, Five Minutes to Madness and Joy, and his latest release, Door in a Field , are thoroughly listenable while simultaneously evoking musical puzzles, paradoxes, and complexities that leave the listener challenged and looking for sometimes non-existent parallels. On a personal level, Ridl remains, even after over twenty years on tour and establishing residence on the East coast, a homespun, “laid back,” and gentle native of the North Dakota heartland, natural, candid, and trust-inspiring. As a musician he is forthright, energetic, and inventive while also something of a “funny riddle” (to paraphrase John Denver) who combines his own unique ideas and sounds with tradition-bound formats such as the blues, and even classical themes. When listening to Jim, I have come to expect the unexpected and am never let down. Gerry Mulligan, when asked for his analysis of singer/pianist Blossom Dearie’s style, could only say, “Blossom is Blossom.” Similarly, while he is very complex and imaginative, and his music stimulates deep thought and analysis, ultimately “Jim is Jim.” His music is unique and always metamorphosizing, like footprints in the sand, which, as soon as they are covered over by the wind and waves, are replaced by a new set of footprints, new personae and ideas, as Jim’s agile fingers form a new tracing over the keyboards.
Therefore, I was delighted, and admittedly challenged, when Jim accepted my invitation to interview him for All About Jazz. Since his music seems to me to reflect so much of Jim as a person, I elected to interview the “real” Jim in his own environment. So, on a clear, crisp day in the middle of winter, I drove to his home in the Princeton/Trenton area of New Jersey, easily accessible to Philadelphia and New York, cities where he frequently performs and records, yet in a pleasantly remote “1950’s” suburban area with echoes of a simpler way of life. Coming into his very comfortable living room, with its upright piano, and interesting furnishings and wall hangings that reflect the artistic sensitivity of his wife, Kathy, I am greeted by Pekoe, an orange striped feline, who checks me out and then continues to leap onto various objects, which became a counterpoint to our entire interview, which we conducted in Jim and Kathy’s bright and cheery kitchen over several refills of coffee.
Table of Contents
All About Jazz: Let’s start with the notorious desert island question. If you were going to be on a desert island, which recordings would you take with you?
Jim Ridl: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue would be one. Classically, I’d take some Bach, either piano or choral works. I’d have to have some vocal things. I think I’d want to take some recordings of my wife singing and playing, some we’ve done together and some she’s done by herself.
AAJ: I know that your wife, Kathy, plays the viola...
JR: She plays viola and bass, and she sings, too. We met in music school back in Denver. So I’d probably bring a recording of hers. Maybe some Oscar Peterson. It’s almost as if it’s the earlier stuff that I identify with. Then, also, some rock, some roots, something from the seventies that I grew up with in high school- some Jimmy Hendriks.
ORIGINS AND EARLY MUSICAL EXPOSURE
AAJ: You’re into rock?
JR: Oh, yeah. I grew up with it. I love the music. I didn’t play rock much, but I’m the youngest of five siblings and grew up with their listening to it too.
AAJ: Did you start out with classical piano training?
JR: I took basic piano lessons at my Catholic school for about three years, and then I quit. My father didn’t like that. Then I continued playing by ear, and I composed a bit. In high school, I took about two years of classical piano. At 15, I got a jazz piano teacher. So I come to the classical piano secondly, not primarily.
AAJ: Would you describe yourself as self-taught?
JR: Oh, yeah. What I heard on the radio. What my older brothers taught me.
AAJ: How did you become interested in jazz?
JR: My father had a few recordings, like Duke Ellington, and some of Andre Previn’s jazz oriented stuff. Whatever we heard- like the big band sounds- I liked. I liked all kinds of piano, country, jazz. My piano instructor had himself studied at a teacher’s college in my home town. He also had a duet going with a guitarist. My little town of Dickinson, North Dakota had a fine teacher’s college, and my teacher was from Canada.
AAJ: Who was that teacher?
JR: Keith Traquair. He performed at the only little club in town. My father liked his playing and asked him if he would teach me.
AAJ: Where is Dickinson?
JR: It’s in the southwestern part of the state, west of Bismarck.
AAJ: So Keith Traquair was your first jazz teacher. Now, in the liner notes for your album, “Five Minutes of Madness and Joy,” you list your seminal piano teachers. You’ve already mentioned Keith. I’ll now list the others, and I’d like you tell me briefly a bit about each. First, Sister Rebecca.
JR: She was my very first teacher. She taught music at the Catholic elementary school. Well, I learned some tunes, but she pretty much scared me! She was cool, but- well she didn’t hit me with the proverbial ruler, but she was very strict. Yet I did learn a few things. I don’t think, though, that intimidation is the best way to teach.
AAJ: Would you send her one of your CDs to show how far you’ve come?
JR: I would if I could locate her. I haven’t seen her in many years, of course.
AAJ: Another teacher was Phyllis Harris.
JR: She was my classical teacher in high school. A wonderful lady. Terrific, kind, and friends with Keith Traquair. She was very helpful. I didn’t learn all of the repertoire because I didn’t read music very well at all! Consequently, I couldn’t absorb a lot of the classical literature. But she was great! Unfortunately, I lost track of her after I finished high school.
AAJ: What about Rob Mullins?
JR: I’ve just been in contact with him, actually. After Keith, at age 17, I met Rob at a jazz camp. He just really opened up my world. He was primarily a jazz player. He showed me all kinds of things with free improvisation, pianistic things, etc. He’s out in Los Angeles, now. At that time, he resided in Denver, and I eventually moved there and took some lessons with him. Nowadays, he’s doing well as a composer.
AAJ: So Rob was your first mentor in jazz?
JR: No, Keith was the first. Hearing Keith play is what made me want to be a jazz musician. Later, when I met Rob, it was just on another level with jazz, and it propelled me even further.
AAJ: Is Keith available on recordings? Or was he primarily a local performer?
JR: He eventually moved to Dallas and worked in the country music scene. I think he did a few recordings. I’ve asked him for some, but he’s been a bit shy about sending me anything.
AAJ: Zoe Erisman?
JR: She was my classical teacher in college and very important as well. She developed my classical technique. I studied with her for two years. She was terrific- she really kicked my butt! When I first auditioned for her, she didn’t accept me as a student because I was slow at reading the music. I could improvise well, and read chord changes, but for a semester I had to work on the piano literature, and then she accepted me. She was very cool. That was at the University of Colorado at Denver. In fact, after many years, I’m going there in April to perform at an alumni concert. ( more information )
AAJ: Then, finally, Bud Poindexter.
JR: Yeah, Bud resides in Denver, but I’ve not seen him since the late eighties. He was an adjunct teacher at the University. I studied with him for a year. He was a real jazz personality. He always had his briefcase with him, and at lessons he’d pop it open, and he’d have an ash tray and his smokes. I was playing well by then already, but he just worked with me and taught me many tunes, and he told me, “Jim, it’s a two-five-one world, man!!!” [refering to the most common chord progression- Eds.] He was a very nice guy and very helpful.
AAJ: How did it come about that you left Denver and the west to go into the wider world?
JR: From Denver, I hooked up with a group called Rare Silk. This was in the early eighties. I played with them for two years, and we got signed to Polydor. It was the first touring for me. We played in New York, in the Village, also at Carnegie Hall, the Kool Jazz Festival. We played at clubs all over the country, and went overseas once. While traveling, Kathy and I found that we loved New York and wanted to be closer to it.
AAJ: Kathy was from the West?
JR: She was born in Oklahoma, and then her parents taught at Westminster Choir College for many years. She comes from a musical family. She went to high school in Skillman, New Jersey.
AAJ: So that’s how, eventually, you came to live here in Central New Jersey.
JR: It was five after Rare Silk, maybe 1989-90. Prior to that, we lived in Germany for six months. Kathy’s sister and brother-in-law were opera singers there, and we stayed with them. I developed some fine musical relationships in Germany. I went back there and played in the early nineties.
AAJ: Who were the musicians?
JR: Michael Kersting and Thomas Stabenow. Michael’s a great drummer and Thomas is a wonderful bassist in Munich. And then there is a terrific guitarist in Stuttgart, Lothar Schmidtz.
AAJ: And the two opera singer relatives of Kathy?
JR: Julia Kemp, her sister, and Julia’s husband, Guy Rothfuss. They moved back to the U.S. a few years ago, live in Abington, PA, and teach at Westminster Choir College.
AAJ: Aside from your early teachers, which jazz musicians have had the greatest influence on you?
JR: Above all, Oscar Peterson. I love his album, We Get Requests. I wore it out on vinyl, and eventually got the CD. He was a real inspiration. Following that, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, some Thelonious Monk, Red Garland. Another early influence along with Oscar was Erroll Garner. Awesome playing. Beyond that, in the wider world of jazz, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. Then the avant-garde, jazz rock, etc.
AAJ: I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned pianist Bill Evans. On your CD, A Door in a Field, his influence seems strong.
JR: Oh, yeah. He’s been a very big influence of mine. Absolutely. But I didn’t get hip to Bill Evans until college, and I still have only a few of his recordings.
AAJ: What about the first cut on A Door in a Field? “Sun on My Hands.” It reminded me stylistically of Bill Evans.
JR: There’s that minor mode, that delicate touch....
AAJ: His playing was what I’d call “parsimonious:” just what is necessary, always a meaning in every turn of phrase, nothing wasted.
JR: That kind of feeling was more or less intentional on my part. But I also like to play aggressively and “go nuts!” But lately, I’ve wanted to use fewer notes and say what I want to say without overblowing. So that’s in “Door in a Field.”