While most artists are satisfied with releasing their CDs one at a time, Ritter goes against convention and gives us two. She recently released both "River of Joy," a largely solo piano project, and "Castles in the Air," an ambitious multi-instrumental recording, featuring bassist Steve Swallow among others.
Based in Charlotte, N.C., Ritter is a recipient of the NC Jazz Composer’s Fellowship awarded by the North Carolina Arts Council. She also recently received the Regional Artist Grant and the Grassroots Grant, as artistic director and founder of Composers Charlotte, both awarded by the Arts & Science Council in Charlotte.
Ritter recently talked with JazzReview.com about making the new CDs, moving back home and learning "zombie chords" from jazz legend Mary Lou Williams.
JazzReview.com: Why did you release two CDs at the same time?
Claire Ritter: "For one thing, I had never done a solo piano CD. I had wanted to do that project for a while so I decided to do it simultaneously with the other CD. I had received a few grants, which helped. From an artistic point of view, I’m leaning toward solo piano more now than I did at one point."
JazzReview.com: "River of Joy" is essentially you at the piano performing your compositions.
Claire Ritter: "It’s a whole different approach when you are doing solo vs. collaboration. It’s a new challenge really. You build and build ideas. It’s a growing process I think to be able to come to that point where you are putting all your ideas down as one instrumentalist. But, as a composer, it’s also very rewarding to work with all the instruments because you can bring all the colors out."
JazzReview.com: What was the most interesting experience you had doing the solo project?
Claire Ritter: "I think the most interesting thing for me is to express variety on the piano and perhaps several idioms to let those weave into your music as a pianist and as a composer. A lot of the commercial CDs do the opposite. They try to maintain the same mood and the same tone. I sort of like to do the opposite. It’s important to have a flow within the music, but it’s also important to express variation in your work."
JazzReview.com: What kind of themes do you think emerged?
Claire Ritter: "I dedicated the ‘Solo Portraits’ to my students. I’m teaching and composing. I write motivational, creative pieces for my students. I have advanced students and some very young students. I’m starting them young here in the studio, where they are able to create their own ideas. The ‘River of Joy’ to me is a concept of transferring that knowledge and those ideas."
JazzReview.com: Then there’s "Castles in the Air," which is more symphonic, lusher, more instruments. Were you writing the music at the same time as "River of Joy?"
Claire Ritter: "I always have a backlog of ideas. They’re all going simultaneously. I have an overflow of ideas so I don’t really think about it too much. I don’t really separate it. I love the collaboration process."
JazzReview.com: Is it true that some of the music was inspired by horseback riding?
Claire Ritter: "The symphony that I wrote was inspired by my horse. I’ve been riding since I’ve been playing piano. There’s an undercurrent, a crossover, there between riding and music. I wanted to bring that across."
JazzReview.com: That’s your "Opus 17." Is that where it emerges the most?
Claire Ritter: "Yes, the connection with the horse, the connection with the instrumentalists, the energy that happens, the spontaneity."
JazzReview.com: "Opus 17" also has a dance connection right?
Claire Ritter: "There’s a big dance culture here. I always wanted to study dance as a kid. I never quite got the opportunity to study dance, piano and ride horseback. When I compose, I think in motion and color. I think modern dance is so intriguing. It combines all the refinements of classical and jazz and ethnic ideas. There’s a sense of space and flow."
JazzReview.com: Do you think the CDs are meant for different audiences?
Claire Ritter: "That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think the solo piano works for so many people. It may be a little different audience. I don’t know if it’s a less sophisticated audience, but solo piano just by the fact that its solo piano seems to make a statement for a lot of people. For me, it’s interesting to be able to hear the same piece solo piano and then hear it with different instruments and what a different personality it can have."
JazzReview.com: "Castles in the Air" has been described as a homecoming of sorts for you. It’s the music that has come since you returned to North Carolina after having lived in Boston for many years. Why did you move back to North Carolina?
Claire Ritter: "The most important thing was the connection with nature. Studying and growing in Boston was a great experience. Most of my musical contacts are still in Boston and the Northeast. I sort of think of the music more as a painter or even as a poet. I can be separated and have independence and elbow room. For me coming back and having more of a rural setting was refreshing after having been in Boston for 16 years. That’s inspirational. It was fresh."
JazzReview.com: It must be a completely different vibe living there.
Claire Ritter: "Yes, a very different vibe, but it’s a small world with Internet and travel these days. I’m basically a cowgirl."
JazzReview.com: You grew up in Weddington, N.C., What was that like?
Claire Ritter: "It’s a suburb of Charlotte. It was very rural when I was growing up with cotton fields. Now, it’s getting a little grown up. For me, I can even go further out now. It would be fine with me."
JazzReview.com: Do you have a process for composing? Do you make it a point to write every day or do you wait for something to emerge?
Claire Ritter: "I think composing is probably the easiest thing I do. I go to the piano a couple of hours, several times a week in the morning. Whether it’s practicing or making music, it kind of all bleeds together. Most of my work, getting to the piano, is in the morning."
JazzReview.com: What were you like growing up. Were you always musical?
Claire Ritter: "Just a normal kid. I rode horses. I didn’t have any great goals as a kid. I started composing at 25."
JazzReview.com: Did you start taking lessons at a young age?
Claire Ritter: "I did. I started at seven. I had the opportunity to study with a really fine jazz teacher here in Charlotte early on when I was in about the seventh grade. He was an arranger for the Charlotte Symphony and also a classical pianist."
JazzReview.com: Is that Ziggy?
Claire Ritter: "Yes, Ziggy Hurwitz. Working with him was very inspirational."
JazzReview.com: Did you connect right away with music?
Claire Ritter: "I couldn’t walk by the piano that was in the living room without sitting down and practicing. My mother always tells me that. Some parents have to make their kids study and practice. For me, it was like a magnet."
JazzReview.com: What was the biggest thing you learned from Ziggy Hurwitz?
Claire Ritter: "He was a great teacher. He was also a performer. He was very particular and very refined in his work. Being a jazz and a classical pianist and being able to provide a good foundation in the classical and baroque music is so important."
JazzReview.com: You also worked with jazz legend Mary Lou Williams.
Claire Ritter: "I studied with her off and on for about a year. I had to commute to Durham. I think she was a great inspiration. She handed me her most recent album, ‘Zoning,’ at my first lesson. We connected in terms of ideas and the ‘zombie chords’ that she would show me."
JazzReview.com: What are those?
Claire Ritter: "She called them ‘zombie chords’. I still use them. They’re certain jazz chords. She would show me instead of writing it down, which I do with my students. It’s so important in jazz. I think absorbing things through osmosis is part of the process. I think some of the harmonies that she showed me were great. She was a leader."
JazzReview.com: When did you discover jazz?
Claire Ritter: "I started playing jazz in the sixth or seventh grade. It was more the standards, older style with Ziggy Hurwitz. I got back to jazz with Mary Lou Williams. That’s when I started composing. She kind of planted the seed. I started rather slowly, doing one or two pieces the first year. I then met Ran Blake at New England Conservatory a few years later. He’s a harmonic genius. He gave me so many ideas as a composer."
JazzReview.com: Can you share any other stories about the songs on the new CDs?
Claire Ritter: "‘Imagine That’ was written as an etude, a teaching piece which I teach to all my students. It was composed around a blues line. I’m going to be applying for a grant to publish 10 pieces that I have written for teaching, and that’s one of them. Then, there’s ‘True.’ Glenn Gould, the baroque pianist, said composing is the rawest and truest form of the musical process. It’s like a painter hitting the canvas for the first moment. That’s sort of what I want to say in that piece. ‘Tar’ is a piece that I wrote back in the ‘80s that Ran Blake recorded originally. It was written for my sister, who used to call me ‘Tar’ when I was a kid. She couldn’t saw my name ‘Claire’ so she called me ‘Tar.’"
JazzReview.com: What’s coming up for you this year?
Claire Ritter: "My next goal again is to get 10 of these pieces published, and I’m toying around with an idea of making a two piano CD with Ran Blake. We’ve talked about it. I have always wanted to do that. I’m hoping to also apply for a grant to have ‘Opus 17’ choreographed by a professional dance company. It’s a bit of a long shot, but it’s an interesting idea."