Jim Ridl: Door Openings
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.
AAJ: Some critics have pointed out that you are heavily influenced by traditional blues music. Obviously in Blues Liberations. But also A Door in a Field appears to have a blues texture. Would you consider it accurate to say that your recent work reflects a blues emphasis, a blues structure?
JR: Ah, no actually! Except for “Blues Liberations.” I’m certainly influenced by the blues, but I don’t know beans about the history of the blues. In “Blues Liberations” I spent much time improvising with a blues inflection and feeling. On the whole, though, it’s very non-traditional, except sometimes I play some I-IV-V progressions. But it’s more about a feeling I could bring to it as a jazz player and not a blues artist.
AAJ: What I’m really suggesting is that blues themes and progressions are one venue that jazz musicians choose as part of their evolution. Others might, of course, include be-bop (“I Got Rhythm” progression), modal (Miles Davis), and, for some, like James Moody, going over into dissonance or even serial structures. I just want to get a sense of how you work structurally, how you feel your way into a composition or an improvisation.
JR: I certainly do that. But what I don’t do is go to a lot of blues recordings if I want to play the blues. That’s the last thing I want to do. If I have a piece that’s classical, heavily baroque, I’ll listen to a baroque composer, but I don’t want to get so influenced that it’s overdoing it. A little bit of listening and reading is helpful. For instance, with A Door in a Field, I wanted to create things that are simpler, with some blues influence and inflection. Not structures, but certain “bends.” I listened back in my mind to some country music: Floyd Kramer, Charlie Rich, and I was just in that feeling for a while. But in Jim Ridl Trio Live, that’s just about blowing, like a couple of standards, and we just really stretch. And that was on purpose.