Deciphering the network of Philly-area jazz musicians is a difficult thing. However, pianist Jim Ridl stands out as a local musician whose eloquent musical statements grab audience attention in a heartbeat, whether he’s playing with his own trio or as a sideman. He has played with one of Philly’s most famous, Pat Martino, for more than ten years, but his unique approach has made him one of the most outspoken solo musicians on the scene today.
Ridl’s debut recording, Five Minutes to Madness and Joy, is on the Synergy label. Following that, he released a solo recording on the Dreambox Media label entitled Blues Liberations , on which his daring improvisations enhance superb, clever writing.
When Ridl first took up the piano, he could barely read music, but loved to sit and experiment for hours. As any jazz musician knows, a foundation of ear training is just as valuable as any number of books or formal lessons. This early start served as the basis for much of Ridl’s composing ability.
“I have been improvising since I was a little boy, but I didn’t really know how to write anything down until I was probably 15 or 16,” he says. “I improvise at the piano and I think 99% of my ideas come from that. I improvise freely without anything in mind, and when I do get an idea I stay with it for quite awhile and develop it, and often that becomes a composition.”
Through his improvisational technique, Ridl makes it clear that he comes from a rich jazz background. To date, he has performed with saxophonists Dave Liebman, Denis DiBlasio and James Moody, violinist Diane Monroe, trumpeter Randy Brecker and many more. In fact, just coming off his latest recording, Jim Ridl Live (Dreambox), Ridl is satisfied because the record captures the heart of his career, which is playing in front of an audience. The trio includes Steve Varner on bass and Jim Miller on drums. “We felt it would be really neat to release something live as opposed to the studio. It took some time but I’m glad it’s out because it has some really special things on it, and it’s the first live record I’ve ever released.”
Ridl is currently working on his next project, which he may release independently. “I just finished writing some string parts for a recording I did back in February with Darryl Hall (bass) and Mark Walker (drums). We recorded nine tunes and on three of them, two ballads and a medium swing, I wrote string parts for violin, viola and cello. I was looking forward to doing something different.”
Originality is just one of the reasons the pianist is so sought after as a sideman for the artists mentioned above and many more. He throws in just enough creativity to make the music his own without losing its natural feel.
“I am from the school of where you have the melody but try to come up with ideas that are hopefully very different from what the melody says, by being as original as possible. What I don’t enjoy is when a musician takes such liberties with the melody that it becomes unrecognizable.”
This down to earth personality and eagerness allows Ridl to constantly improve his playing. In fact, while discussing his career, Ridl says his most valuable experience is the work he does with Pat Martino.
“When I first played with Pat and ever since that time, especially in the first number of years, my musicality and growth was directly related to playing with him because he always plays at a high level, no matter what the situation or how he’s feeling. That influence has made me a better musician in a lot of different ways, and those years of playing with him have an influence on any gig that I do. I want to keep music at a level where it’s very artful and direct, even in small venues.”
Teaching adds another dimension to Ridl’s career and also keeps him focused on the quality of music he performs on a regular basis. “I am not a very methodical teacher, but I do tell my students that they have to listen to a lot of jazz artists. I try to center students so they focus on what the sound is, and learn why certain passages have a certain energy that might lead them up or down, or with dissonance and consonance, so they start to recognize sound and aren’t just reading or playing without a clue. That’s why I include as many angles as I can at once.”
Ridl’s career thus far is a collection of what he has been able to learn from others to create a sound that is unique and filled with remnants of where he grew up (North Dakota), the cities he plays in (mainly New York and Philly) and what he listens to. A rich, bluesy feel can be heard in all of Ridl’s music, which might give the impression that he’s mastered the blues as well. He humbly admits, however, that his music simply follows the footsteps of regular jazz tradition.