Jim Ridl, who's been with Pat Martino's bands for years, deserves to be better known. Not only is he a personal, forceful pianist, he's also a first-rate composer and arranger who knows how to put together a band and how to make thoroughly engaging albums like this one. Country songs like Hank Williams' title opus and "Tennessee Waltz are not the usual fare of jazz musicians (exception: saxophonist Benny Wallace). In trio with bassist Steve Varner and drummer Jim Miller, Ridl digs into "Your Cheatin' Heart as if moving the geography from Williams' Alabama to the Mississippi shores of Memphis.
With the rest of his quintetvocalist J.D. Walter, soprano saxophonist Ron Kerber, bassist Steve Varner and guest Jef Lee Johnson on mandolinRidl creates an ethereal version of "Tennessee Waltz, Varner plucking the melody as a high wordless voice and the saxophone harmonizing with the trilling mandolin. It's a truly haunting, singular version of the song.
The album's other standard is the Ellingtonian "Caravan, given a most original reading, beginning with free rubato intros and featuring a long, architectonic solo by Ridl as its centerpiece: it begins a cappella with disjointed, Monkish kernels coalescing into riffs and evolving into long, flowing, two-handed lines. Ridl's three originals include the two-part "Grazed by Light, with a lyric piano prelude, then a quintet version of the attractive melody, with sax and voice again forming a luminous ensemble sound.
"Antiphon (tri vulti pacis) is a stately piece (originally written for the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop big band) giving piano, voice and sax each a turn at the processional melody. "Smile, Said the Drum has, according to Ridl, "a certain Coltrane thing and is dedicated to the memory of Elvin Jones. It has the requisite hard drive from Miller, with swinging solos from Ridl and Kerber; don't miss Ridl's sparkling comp figures behind the sax, exemplifying another reason he's so good.
Ron Kerber: soprano saxophone; J.D. Walter: vocals; Steve Varner: bass; Jim Miller: drums; Jef
Lee Johnson: guitar, mandolin; Jim Ridl: Yamaha grand piano, Happyland baby piano.