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Jim Ridl: Opening Doors in the Big Apple

Victor L. Schermer By

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Something fresh and vital is in the air when a truly creative musician is about to release a new album. Jim Ridl's Door in a Field: Volume II: Songs of the Green River, an independent release, is full of surprises and rich in musical ideas. The album is set to be released in early Fall, and the music will be premiered live in a celebration at the 55 Bar in New York on September 18, 2016.

In a previous (2004) interview, All About Jazz praised Jim Ridl as..."an innovative force, 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." Originally from North Dakota, he now lives and works in the New York area. In addition to leading his own groups in NYC, Ridl has been a member of the Dave Liebman Big Band, the Charles Mingus Big Band, Ximo Tebar's IVAM Jazz Ensemble of Spain, and has played with many musicians on the NY Jazz scene, including Joe Locke, Steve Wilson, Tim Horner, Donald Edwards, Boris Kozlov, and Ralph Bowen to name a few.

Ridl's recordings as a leader embrace diverse styles and genres and include Your Cheatin' Heart and Other Works, Door In a Field, Jim Ridl Trio/Live, and Blues Liberations (Solo Piano), all on the Dreambox Media label, Blue Corn Enchilada Dreams (an independent release), and Five Minutes to Madness and Joy,,on Synergy Music. As part of Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rhythm Road program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, he twice toured world-wide, with the Mark Sherman/Tim Horner Quartet, and with the Gabrielle Stravelli Quartet. Ridl's tenure with jazz guitarist Pat Martino is legendary and documented in films and Martino's autobiography, Here and Now.

Ridl was raised on a farm-ranch in North Dakota, a locale and life experience which play a central role in his new album. In 2007, already transplanted east, and well into his career, Ridl and his wife Kathy, a musician and graphic designer noted for her CD cover art, relocated from the Trenton area to New York. In this follow up interview, All About Jazz was especially interested in his experience adjusting to the New York music world, the story of his new album, and his experience as a jazz educator.

All About Jazz: For a warm-up, what music do you listen to these days when you're not performing?

Jim Ridl: I don't listen to a lot of records, but often I'll put on some Bach, like Glenn Gould performing The Well-Tempered Clavier, or Bach's choral music and suites. Bach's music is a lifetime journey that I'll always be playing or listening to. There are the vintage jazz recordings, and other classical CDs, too. But I like to listen to music live. I'll go to one of the clubs, like Kitano, or the 55 Bar, or Fat Cat, or Smalls. Occasionally, I'll go to a classical concert. A few months ago, I heard Richard Goode perform an all-Bach solo piano program at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. He was incredible! It was very inspiring to hear him.

AAJ: Do you ever go to clubs to jam?

JR: Very rarely. Jam sessions are very important when you're a young musician coming on the scene, but I haven't done that for years.

Making It in the Big Apple

AAJ: The last time I interviewed you was in 2004. We got together at your home in Hamilton, NJ, not far from Trenton and Philadelphia. At that time, your network of musicians and clubs was largely based in and around Philly, although you were often working in New York and on the road. A couple of years after that, you moved to the Big Apple, a major venture for jazz musicians. What was your personal experience of making that change of location?

JR: It was definitely a big move. It's no revelation, but New York remains the biggest city in the world for music, in particular jazz. My history with New York goes back to when I was a boy. In 1965, my family vacationed there, and I just loved the city. I always wanted to play there, and in 1983, I was on tour with the jazz vocal group called Rare Silk, and we played for a whole week at the now defunct club called Lush Life. I was 24, just coming up, and it was amazing. A year later, we played at Carnegie Hall for the Kool Jazz Festival. At that time I lived in Denver but made it a point to get to New York every couple of years, so it was always a goal of mine to be here in New York. When Kathy and I first moved East from Denver, we ended up settling in the Trenton area—we had some family there—but it was always our intention to live in NYC eventually. Trenton is halfway between Philly and NYC, so I could play gigs in both places. I also attended the New York Composer's Workshop in the early 1990s, studying with Manny Albam and Jim McNeely.

In 1992, I met Pat Martino and started working with him, including some of the bigger venues in New York. After that, I started getting calls from other musicians and played more gigs in New York. Then, in 2007, Kathy and I made the move to New York, and as soon as we relocated here, my friends said, "Oh, you're living up here now? I've got a gig for you next week!" I had been commuting to New York all the time, but as soon as I moved here, I got a lot more calls. There's something about people thinking of you as a local New Yorker! Within a year, I was offered several international tours. I've gotten a lot of work in Spain and State Department tours in Asia and Eastern Europe, working with the Mingus Big Band, the Dave Liebman Big Band, also touring with some smaller ensembles.

AAJ: It's fascinating that just the change of address led the musicians to think of you as more available to work with them!

JR: I was an active part of the New York scene before I moved here. But when they knew I was only a few minutes away, there was a lot of work that came with that. And that's what I wanted. The variety of musicians here is huge. There's a lot more competition, but rarely am I intimidated by other players. I'm here to make music and to play at my best. There's nowhere I've been that there are so many opportunities to do that.

AAJ: Are you personally happy that you made the move?

JR: Oh, yeah! Both Kathy and I feel like we are finally at home. I've had many happy years married to this wonderful person who is a great artist and musician. I have terrific family and friends. I play with great people everywhere, but I never felt a hundred percent settled until we moved here. Since then I've felt physically centered, my mind is focused, and I feel more passionate about what I'm doing. This is not to say that there aren't challenges that come with being a freelance musician. But my happiness and standard of living have definitely benefited from moving to New York.

AAJ: Did coming East and being part of the New York scene change you as a person? Are you still the same North Dakota guy?

JR: I actually feel I'm more of who I am. I don't think my essential character has changed that much, but I feel much more fulfilled. My connection to music has deepened. And I probably have a deeper connection to my roots. For one thing, we go back to North Dakota every year to visit. I don't necessarily want to live there because I like my career and lifestyle here, but I love that country and the way of life. All of it is deeper for me now. It's deeper, and it's more refined. Being at this stage of my life, I don't take every gig I'm offered. I'm more selective. When I play, I want plenty of opportunity to improvise, and I want people to really listen.

AAJ: And you seem to select your co-musicians and groups with care. I notice that you work with many of them regularly. Would I be right in saying that you work with them because they stretch you musically?

JR: Very much. They stretch me musically, and along with that, they're just incredibly musical people. For me, what I look for is not only the craftsmanship, but the integrity of the musician. To me, that means that when we make music, there has to be a great respect for the music and the process. The musicians that I consistently work with have that quality -great people with incredible musical skills, and totally dedicated to the music.

AAJ: Do you have your own working group?

JR: I don't have an ongoing group, but I've tried over the years to hook up often with certain players. Since I've moved to New York, I've made it a point to work with a lot of different musicians. I have a monthly gig at the 55 Bar (second Mondays), and I try to put together a different combination every month. And sometimes I'll call someone I knew about when I was younger and invite them to work with me. I've been batting a thousand on that score: I'm happy to say pretty much everyone has taken me up on it: Harvie S, Adam Nussbaum, Ignacio Berroa, Donny McCaslin, and many other great musicians.

So I don't have a particular trio or quartet as of now, but that may happen at some point. Right now I use a lot of my own music, but I like to vary the people I work with. It's great to see how different musicians interpret my music. It keeps things fresh. But at some point, I might want to form my own group so the musical relationship can evolve over an extended period of time. We all know of those great groups in any genre that develop a strong connection together. But right now I like switching it up and seeing what different people are going to do.

Two Big Band Adventures

AAJ: You've worked extensively with two big bands led by very strong personalities: Dave Liebman's Big Band and the Mingus Big Band led by his widow, Sue Mingus. Dave and Sue both have definite ways of doing things, and have specific expectations for their groups, which is not a criticism but just to say that's how they are. You are very original and creative, and I assume you like to go your own way much of time. How has that worked out for you?

JR: It's certainly been quite a journey! I've been with Dave's big band since 2000. We worked together for a solid fifteen years. I have always had a very good relationship with him both musically and as friends. He's one of the most amazing musicians I've ever had the honor to work with, and yes, he is a very strong personality. When I first started playing with him, it was a real challenge. I had to study his music quite a bit, and I realized that he wants everyone to bring his own thing to the music, and after a couple of years, I found my own voice in the band, and he was totally cool with that. You know what? Dave is a strong personality, but he's a straight shooter. He's incredibly genuine, and there's no BS with him. He's not one of those personalities who carry some other baggage into what they deal with in the music. He might be tough about the music, but it's about the music. How lucky for me to work with such a fantastic musician who is a hundred percent about the music. It's been good for me to witness how he writes music, how he leads a group.

With Sue Mingus, it's also been a great experience. Sue is, of course, involved with programming the music, and also has a lot to do with who is selected for the band. I was one of a number of pianists who rotated in the band. I didn't know much about Charles Mingus' music, so I had to work very hard at that. The band book is about two inches thick. There's a ton of music. Sometimes it's hard to negotiate because it's not clear where to go. I worked with the band for a couple of years, and it was great to really learn Mingus' music and to meet and work with so many great players.

When you're playing in a big band, you're basically like an orchestra player. It's very important you do your part, you gotta play it well. You don't get as much solo space. Your function is to be part of the group. I learned a lot from that. Mingus' music has tons of personality: you recognize it right away. Same with Liebman's music. Same with Pat Martino's music. They're all strong musical personalities, and you've gotta have your thing together when you work with them. But even though each has his or her own approach, all three of them liked what I brought to the table that was different. That's what made it work.<

A Door in a Field

AAJ: I'm always impressed by the inventiveness and creativity you bring to your playing, in that you're in synch with the group yet there are brilliant moments and passages that are all your own and add so much to what the group is doing. And as we're talking, I'm realizing how resilient and diverse your career has been. It's remarkable.

JR: Thank you.

AAJ: You have a new recording soon to be released. So let's focus on that. I understand that it's a sequel to a wonderful CD you made a few years ago called Jim Ridl's Door in a Field which is a treasure. Tell us about the new CD.

JR: It's entitled, Jim Ridl's Door in a Field: Volume II: Songs of the Green River. It's a follow up to the one you mentioned which I did thirteen years ago. The Door in a Field series is a composition-based project, musically describing my upbringing on a ranch-farm in North Dakota. Being raised on that land, in a rural agricultural setting, remains an inspiration to me. So much of what I learned and experienced growing up in that environment remains a "door" through which I walk to have the life I enjoy now.

Amazingly, all the musicians I wanted for this recording were available and in town at the same time -a miracle in itself! The core group is Mark Walker on drums, Darryl Hall on bass, Steve Wilson on saxophones, Zack Brock on violin, and myself on piano. And then I added vibraphonist Joe Locke for one song, and guitarist Wayne Krantz on another. Half the record is instrumental, and the rest includes vocals. Singers JD Walter, Paul Jost, Gabriela Anders and Gina Roche are on the project, and there are also two choral pieces, sung by the Kemp Family. They are my wife Kathy's family members who are seasoned chorus singers. This recording took over two years to complete, and I am grateful to everyone who was involved and who added their talents.

Musically, I wanted the new CD to be quite specific, and I tried to shape the whole album in a particular way. So most of the compositions are programmatic. Each piece reflects a feeling or an event that happened in North Dakota. But I'm coming at it from my current standpoint, not having lived there for many years, looking at it from far away, but it's very much in my heart.

As for the details, there are some new compositions, as well as pieces I wrote ten years ago, and there's one piece whose initial theme I wrote thirty-five years ago when I was in college. In addition, I took two pieces from the first volume of Door in a Field and re-arranged them. I added my lyrics to "Green Meadow Waltz," a Czech folk song, and on the title song "Door in a Field," singer J.D. Walter sings lyrics he wrote.

My wife Kathy grew up in a family of classical singers and church musicians, so I wrote two choral pieces that were recorded by thirteen of her family members, including Kathy's mother, who was 97 at the time of that session. It's a treasure to hear her voice on the choral tracks, as she passed on six weeks after the session; She was a happy healthy artistically active, well-respected composer and music clinician right to the end of her long life.

AAJ: It must have been an amazing and heartwarming recording session.

JR: It was amazing. It included Kathy, her four siblings, her mother, the spouses of her siblings, and some of their adult children, all of whom are professional singers! So it brings Kathy's family in to sing what I'm writing musically about my own family. That choral piece has 4 "movements": "Remembrance," "In Wheat Fields," "Remembrance" (a variation), and "Banks Church Anthem." Banks Church is where my mother was baptized, a Norwegian Lutheran Church out on the prairie. I wrote "Banks Church Anthem" as a hymn for my mother when the church celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2007. Eventually I would like to do these compositions in live performance. I hope to continue writing this kind of music, and I'm hoping that we'll find suitable venues that fit with the whole concept.

AAJ: Is it similar in that way to the composition you did some years ago based on Walt Whitman's poetry?

JR: Yes, in 1993 I was commissioned by St. Andrew's Church in Trenton to write a work that investigated the urban soul of a city. The resulting "Five Pieces for Discerning the Soul of Trenton" used poems from Walt Whitman and others that fit the subject and the music. The pieces were performed at several churches in Trenton and Princeton in concert settings. So, at times, I venture outside of the traditional jazz context, even though jazz and improvisation are included. Part of the challenge is to find the performance settings that are workable and where people can hear the music. But for Door in a Field V2, we will have our CD release party at the 55 Bar on September 18. The 55 Bar is kind of a NYC home for me, and seems appropriate for this CD release.

AAJ: We could think of your Door in a Field project as your magnum opus, a work which brings together so much of who you are. What would you like listeners to take away from hearing this array of music?

JR: To me, a lot of it is about beauty. It's lyrical, it's accessible, yet it has depth to it. It's about emotion. I want listeners to feel something when they hear it -it doesn't have to be a "good" feeling, but I do want them to have a feeling. I hope it gets to them in a particular way. It might be a sense of joy, or remembering something in their own lives, or a melancholy mood. I hope the music has the possibility to really affect people deep inside. This is not an intellectual project. I like those too, things which are very challenging with interesting, complicated architecture. Those qualities are present, but it's more important that listeners feel moved. And it's also about geography, about place. It's rural America with Norwegian and Czechoslovakian roots combined with the urban idiom of jazz.

AAJ: It's music of the American heartland. Much of jazz came out of the big cities and the South, but many musicians have roots in the midwest, and in the 1930s -1940s, the so-called Territory Bands like those of Hot Lips Page, Benny Carter, and so many others, played shows and dances throughout the midwest and southwest and were influenced by the local music.

We're talking in large part here about your work as a composer. I often wonder how composers get their ideas together. In your case, do you first come up with a tune in your mind, and then later arrange it for a group, or does the whole piece come into your mind all at once, for a specific ensemble or particular musicians?

JR: On Door in a Field, V2, for example, I wrote "Remembrance" after playing a gig in Atlantic City a few years ago. I got home late, started playing piano, and I came up with a musical idea that came to me intact from beginning to end. I couldn't find a way to use it, so I put it on the shelf until I started preparing this new recording. Then, I arranged it for the particular ensemble I had in mind: Mark, Darryl, Steve, Zach and me. And then I added the chorus.

AAJ: This is a big-time album. Congratulations. I can't wait to hear it!

Mentoring the Young Musicians

AAJ: Our interview wouldn't be complete without talking about your remarkable work as a mentor, teacher, and educator. You've served as Art Tatum Scholarship Artist in Residence at the University of Toledo, Ohio, and conducted piano master classes at the University of the Arts (Philadelphia), Metropolitan State College (Denver), and West Chester University. You were Artist-in-Residence with the Jazz Program at Princeton University, coached several ensembles at Princeton, and have taught classes and lessons at the NY Jazz Workshop. That's quite a resume! In addition, you maintain a private teaching studio. Given all the interactions you've had with students, I'm curious how you would compare the current crop of new musicians with past generations of jazz players. And what do you try to convey to them in terms of what they'll take with them into their careers?

JR: In the last ten years or so, the younger musicians have more and more access and exposure to a huge amount of information and listening, whether from the internet, YouTube, teachers, and jazz teaching institutes around the world. Many more aspects of improvisation are laid out for them now, via YouTube, of live and filmed historic concert performances from around the world. Partly thanks to their enormous exposure to so much music and education, the current generation's level of playing and craftsmanship is really high. I hear a lot of fantastic playing from them.

What's really important, and what I encourage them to do, is to go and hear live performances, get lost in them, and get passionate about what they're hearing. The easy access they have to so much information and music right at home can often get in the way of going out to hear the music live and also meeting the musicians. There's a lot they miss, like hearing musicians make mistakes, or transcending a mistake in a brilliant way. It's very important that they experience the music in person, hang out with the musicians, be passionate about the music. Meet the musicians, get to know their personalities, their idiosyncrasies.

To me, this music is about your own individual voice -that's the prize. You get to have your own voice, and yet you get to interact with other people. The jazz musician has an amazing opportunity to be both a team player and make his or her own individual statement at the same time! Not everyone gets to do that. I feel blessed to do this. That's one of the things that never changes across the generations.

The way I teach is to emphasize self-discovery. I say to the students, "You have some ideas to work with here, now see what you can do to be creative with them. And I also encourage them to attend gigs that I am on, because then they can see the basis of what I'm teaching them, how I formed my opinions and ideas. Then it becomes mentorship and not just teaching.

Photo Credit: Maria João Arcanjo

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