Jim Ridl: Door Openings
AAJ: To become a bit more philosophical and psychological, I’ve talked with Pat a good deal recently, and a keynote of his philosophy of life, which is so consistent with his music, is his emphasis on the “now,” on living in the present moment. His memory loss and his spiritual seeking seem to have fostered that “here and now” approach to living, although for Pat it may also be his natural way of being. His music is very “right now:” every moment, every beat, is of absolutely equal importance.
By contrast, my impression, from your music, your liner notes, your website, is that for you, memory is very important. You live and work in time recollected, time now, and time anticipated- past, present, future. For example in your latest CD, A Door in a Field, you have associations to the blues, growing up in North Dakota, suggestions of many influential musicians, liner notes and poetry about your father. Your music and liner notes also reflect loyalty to your origins and influences. Jazz is both about the here and now, and also about memory and what you value to bring into the future. I wonder if this rings true to you- the influence of the past recollected, for instance.
JR: Yes, and I would say especially with this recording, A Door in a Field, which ties directly to my roots in North Dakota. It’s clearest for me when I compose. Compositionally, I’m very often thinking very programmatically, something visual, something in literature, a memory or reverence to something in my past. I start with the music, with the now, but I find that “Oh, this is developing in a certain way.” And I go, “OK, now I get the connection” that, for example, this is about my roots, and I start tying that in.
AAJ: I was very struck by the image of “a door in a field.” What does that mean to you?
JR: It’s a porthole, a doorway into something open, that I can do anything I want with- I can go into this area, come back out.
AAJ: [spotting Pekoe jumping up on a window sill]: Like your cat! [Laughter ?]
JR: And in another way, too, I would relate it to my father and his passing. I could think, he went through that door, but he’s still here in a way, because he was in that field on the farm. It’s just a thought of mine- I don’t know if it relates to the music itself. The “door in a field” image says that I can do anything I want musically. In the next recording, the music can be different.
[Pekoe gets a bit hyperactive and disrupts the interview for a minute.]
AAJ: What’s the significance of your cat’s name?
JR: It’s Pekoe, like the tea, because of her orange color.
AAJ: So Pekoe likes to be free. And you’re giving yourself permission to be free as a musician.
JR: With this recording, I wanted it to be more about the music, less about the piano. That’s very intentional. Interestingly enough, many of the positive comments I’ve been getting have been about the music, not so much the piano playing. I don’t need to be in this as much. It’s not about me with keys.
AAJ: Five Minutes to Madness and Joy, by contrast, is very intensely about the piano.
AAJ: Door in a Field is haunting, evocative, imagistic.
JR: That’s cool to hear. Pianistically, it’s difficult technique-wise to be able to suggest a lot with very little playing. Bill Evans had tons of technique, but not flashy. The beauty you would hear when he’d play a seven note chord, and you could hear every tone in that chord, and it represents a color quality- that requires a wonderful technique.
AAJ: And soul.
JR: So soulful. I love people who play like that. Chet Atkins wasn’t flashy, but what a great musician.
AAJ: Music becomes art and poetry. That’s what I feel about A Door in a Field - it has a quality of painting pictures, impressionistic. Furthermore, your composition on the other CD, Five Minutes to Madness and Joy, is based on Walt Whitman’s poem “One Hour to Madness and Joy.” I have the poem here. It’s a beautiful poem.
JR: [Turning to Pekoe]: What are you doin’ up there?! Come on, get up! Git! Git! [Pekoe refuses to obey.] Oh well, we won’t worry about it. [Laughter ?]
To put “Five Minutes to Madness and Joy” in context, initially, it was part of a set of five pieces commissioned by a church in Trenton: “Five Pieces for Discerning the Soul of Trenton.” The church was doing research about what was going on spiritually in Trenton, and, after I did a jazz service, the pastor asked me to compose something. So, “Five Minutes” was one of those pieces. I read poetry to get something to draw from. I read some Maya Angelou, Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass.” I was looking for the pulse of those poets- their being very spiritual, “inside the people” kind of writers. When I read “One Hour to Madness and Joy,” it fit so well with a piece I was already working on.
AAJ: Could you cite a few lines from the poem that fit into the composition.
“One hour to madness and joy! O furious! O confine me not! (What is it this that frees me so in storms? What do my shouts amid lightnings and raging winds mean?) O to drink the mystic deliria deeper than any other man! O savage and tender achings! (I bequeath them to you my children, I tell them to you, for reasons, O bridegroom and bride.)”
It goes on to a different context. But it told me about having two disparate emotions at the same time, where you’re nuts with joy and you’re just crazy about what you’re doing! I felt that what I was doing musically had a craziness about it, but it’s no so dark, or so aggressive that you’re only going to get madness out of it. Instead, it’s cool, it has all this energy.
AAJ: It’s intoxicating.
JR: Intoxicating is a good word for it.
AAJ: What are the other pieces of “Five Pieces for Discerning the Soul of Trenton”?
JR: There was the Shaker song called “The Gift”: “Tis a gift to be simple....” That closes the composition. I also took a poem of my older brother, who is a wonderful poet, and set that to music. It was a classical art song in the context of DiBlasio’s quartet of sax, piano, bass, and drums, with voice. It tied into certain spiritual and emotional aspects of the city of Trenton, with some words and a bit of description by me. The program notes made the connections to Whitman, etc.
AAJ: Is there a recording?
JR: I have a personal recording. Maybe I’ll make you a copy.
AAJ: I understand that “Five Minutes to Piano and Joy” was actually performed by a big band.
JR: That was at the BMI Composer’s Workshop in New York. It has a history. The reason it’s called “Five Minutes” is because we weren’t allowed to write a composition longer than five minutes!
AAJ: “Ocean Sojourn for Piano and Orchestra.” Performed by the Denver Symphony.
JR: That was a dream since I was a kid. I wrote it when I was a senior in college. It was a tone poem dedicated to my Norwegian grandparents, homesteading in North Dakota. It’s seventeen minute piece. No breaks, but three movements. I have a personal recording of it.
AAJ: “Bernstein on Broadway” and “Cole Porter/Stephen Foster Songs” sound a bit out of context for you.
JR: That last piece was commissioned by the opera singers Julia and Guy Rothfuss. They wanted something lighter to perform. “Bernstein on Broadway” emerged from a request from Bob Thick at the Off Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell, NJ. I arranged Bernstein’s music sort of as jazz pieces, but used classical performers- five voices, piano, bass, and drums. Broadway-style voices and players. They did a great job, and it was great to get that deep into Bernstein’s music.
AAJ: Do you ever think of doing an album of standards?
JR: Yeah. In fact, my wife Kathy has suggested that. But I have so much original music in my head that it’s a difficult choice.