On June 24, 2005 I had the distinct, pleasant opportunity to speak with composer, pianist Claire Ritter, about her recent album, "Greener Than Blue," and about some current and future projects that she is working on. Prior to speaking with Claire, I listened to the album several times, featuring seventeen original pieces of music, sixteen of which Claire wrote. It is an album that is immediately appealing and that grows more so with each listening.
Claire is joined by some remarkable musicians on this album, Dan Strickland on soprano sax, bass clarinet and vocals, Bob Weiner on drums and percussion, with guest Todd Low on viola and performing a solo on erhu (Chinese cello) on the closing piece Rising Star.
JazzReview: I have been listening for the last couple of days to "Greener Than Blue" and I really like it. It is a very good album.
Claire Ritter: Well, thanks.
JazzReview: I was looking at the people who you have played with over the years, and even on this album. The question I have is how do you select your collaborators?
Claire Ritter: Part of it is a relationship over a period of time, which I think helps a lot in terms of developing sounds and ideas. I think more than that, the players that I tend to be attracted to and like to work with have a kind of deeper intuitiveness about the spirit and essence of the music--my music or the ability to focus and catch the essence of the music easily, and then be able to articulate it. That’s more than meets the eye, so to speak.
JazzReview: Well, on this particular album, I was reading up a little bit on Dan Strickland, and I was wondering if there was any form of communication that he was not adept at? He’s an actor, a singer, a dancer, and playing the soprano saxophone and the bass clarinet, that’s a pretty wide range.
Claire Ritter: Yes. And he’s a very spiritual guy. He’s a Buddhist. And again, he’s a grand multi- instrumentalist. But he’s a good musician and I think for me, he’s able to pick up on ideas and put his mark on it, but at the same time, keeps the essence of the composer. And that’s just a really good musician, I think. He’s had a lot of experience too in a lot of different types of music, which helps. He has traveled pretty extensively, including India and the Far East and places like that. I think that helps to get a balance of that whole personality. That personality comes out through the instrument, too.
JazzReview: Okay, now in choosing the instrument that he plays, did you choose that, the soprano sax and the bass clarinet?
Claire Ritter: I did. He had recorded with me on "Castles in the Air. " He played flute. We have done flute before and so instrumentation depends on the piece, and the kind of sound and texture I want with the composition. On these compositions, I much prefer a soprano sax and a bass clarinet, which I think is an intriguing instrument within itself. I chose the instrumentation.
JazzReview: I’m sure I heard bass clarinet prior to this year, but I finally saw someone play a bass clarinet. Allen Savedoff played and it is a pretty amazing instrument.
Claire Ritter: It is, and if you ever hear any of the old Eric Dolphy recordings, I think one is called "Quest..." It’s an interesting instrument and it is not played a lot. So I think it works very well in certain jazz settings.
JazzReview: Then, working with Bob Weiner, drums and percussion, I noticed that he used all sorts of ethnic percussion; again did you choose what he was using?
Claire Ritter: Well we chose it together. He is a pretty balanced percussionist and drummer. And that’s hard to find because most musicians are either one or the other, or have a strength in one and try to make an attempt at the other. But he is a very balanced musician. Having played with Takaaki Musuko on many recordings before, I was looking for a very versatile musician who could go back and forth between the drums and the percussive instruments. Again, he has a lot of experience and a lot of instrumentation to pull from. I thought he did a nice job.
JazzReview: Yes he did. How did you come by knowledge of all these various percussion instruments? In choosing an instrument like the bass clarinet, is it just experience or how do you figure that out?
Claire Ritter: In many instances I have heard the musician play the instrument, so I’m attracted to their connection with their instrument. That’s one aspect. Or, for example, with Bob Weiner, I had asked him to send me a couple of recordings of things that he has done and show me samplings before we do the gig, of his colors or different variations of styles that he will play in. For example, I had never played with Bob before, but I wanted an introduction to different aspects of his musicality. That’s one thing. Or I prefer to be able to hear a musician live with their instrument.
JazzReview: Is Bob from North Carolina or Boston?
Claire Ritter: Bob lives in Western Massachusetts and he has connections to Berklee and NEC. He was in Boston when I was there, but I never actually played with him. He and Stan had done some gigs together fairly recently, and Stan recommended Bob in this particular setting. That also helps where you can put a couple of musicians together that also have a connection so that you can get the full connection going. I like to hear or I have to hear what the musician is doing with the different instruments, so I can put together some ideas that I’m doing and see if it matches.
JazzReview: And then finally Todd Low. Now what is an erhu?
Claire Ritter: It’s a cello-type Chinese instrument similar to a Chinese cello, I think they call it. I wasn’t real familiar with the instrument, but I heard Todd in a live performance at Manhattan School of Music a few years back, about three years ago, and fell in love with the richness and depth of the instrument. That’s how I got that going for a couple of tunes on the recording, but I think it’s a very intriguing, very haunting, voice-like instrument. That’s the closest that I’ve heard it described is like a Chinese cello. It sits up, but it has a thinner neck.
JazzReview: Okay. On "Greener Than Blue" you have drawn from, it seems, every musical tradition around the world--a little bit, doing that, bringing in Eastern and Middle Eastern and Indian sounds, and Native American sounds. How do you determine your voice?
Claire Ritter: That’s a broad question. I’m not sure how to answer that.
JazzReview: Let me clarify. Listening to your music I hear influences, but it doesn’t cause me to think Claire is playing Chinese pieces or Claire is playing Indian music. At one point on the album you almost sound like Vince Guaraldi. There’s a lot, but you obviously have your own voice and it seems to be very eclectic. How would you describe it?
Claire Ritter: You know, I think I hear melodies first, and I think the melodies will last longer in the end. But as you become a more seasoned musician, you develop a sound too. That can be combined with what you are building in harmonic structures and rhythmic structures. I think in the end when it is all said and done and simplified, I think that if you as a composer can carry a melody and make it interesting or intriguing, and have a good number of those kind of pieces. I think it is a strength. That’s what I aspire to. I think it’s important, but you know, I think it is something you can’t put your finger on. Hopefully it comes through in the music.
JazzReview: On "Greener Than Blue," in writing the Opus 21 World Poems for Peace, you wrote all of that except for Rising Star.
Claire Ritter: Yes.
JazzReview: I know that you explained in the liner notes some of your reasons for doing that, but how long did it take you to do that and when did you know that these seven pieces were going to be a suite?
Claire Ritter: I usually start out with a melody that I feel has a strength to it, that’s like the thread. The main thread, that was "Greener Than Blue." Then I start to come up with ideas that build around that idea. It seems that in the past ten years or so, my composing has come in series, in groups--and it happens to be whatever happens to be the muse in that couple of year&&&s time frame. It evolves usually over a year or two from ideas that seem to be related according to what ever the muse happens to be at that time. Right now, I’m working on a group of pieces for orchestra, for strings and piano, based on a painting by Georgia O’Keefe...her "Orange and Red Streak" that was painted in 1919. And this year the whole past year now, I’m completely in that mind set, connecting to her artistry because she was such an intuitive artist.
JazzReview: When you are doing something like that do you go to New Mexico?
Claire Ritter: Yes, I have been to New Mexico and I’ve been to her "Ghost Ranch." I visited her village in Taos and yes, the answer is yes. You connect with the spirit ,the essence of the muse, and things just start to waft around that.
JazzReview: How are you going to be doing this new project? Will that be a small group or an orchestra?
Claire Ritter: Well, I’m playing in a concert "Jazz Composers Carolina," in October at Queen’s University. I’m one of three composers and I’m going to be playing with a string duo or trio from the Charlotte Symphony. We are going to world premier these four compositions. These are all compositions that I’ve written based on this one painting called "Orange and Red Streak." It’s going to be premiered and the title is "Waltzing the Splendour."
JazzReview: How did you come up with that title?
Claire Ritter: It came to me through the painting.
JazzReview: Is this somehow based on a waltz?
Claire Ritter: They are four jazz serenades and there is a waltz quality which goes back and forth between them, and a waltz, but they all have a dance quality to them. And it will tie into No.1 Strings In The Desert, No. 2 Painter’s Serenade, No. 3 - Orange, Red, Yellow, Gold, Waltzing the Splendour and Waltzing the Splendour. The colors in the painting are orange, red, yellow and gold on a canvas of black ebony, so it all ties into that one painting.
JazzReview: Do you think that at any time you will be performing this at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum?
Claire Ritter: It would be great. That would be a goal. I think it would be interesting to put this in a museum setting. Also, I am thinking of applying for a couple of large grants to have it scored for a larger string orchestra.
JazzReview: When you play this with a string duo or trio, do you play strings also?
Claire Ritter: I play piano.
JazzReview: What strings do you envision if you use the trio?
Claire Ritter: I’ve already started working with a violinist, and probably cello.
JazzReview: Do you have any particular musicians in mind?
Claire Ritter: I do, but I’m trying to work with local musicians for this project and I do have a couple of specific ones in mind. But, you know, there is still a little improvisational aspect to this. It’s not really jazz, but it’s classical jazz, so it’s tricky when you’re choosing musicians. Usually they’re either classical or jazz musicians. In Charlotte, it’s not as easy to find musicians that are flexible enough to able have an interesting, good classical sound, and also have improvisational experience. So I have musicians that I can pull from, one in Germany and another in Boston and things like that, but for this project I’m trying to get it off the ground right here in Charlotte. I’m picking and choosing right at the moment.
JazzReview: Looking at the album "Greener Than Blue," it got really good press. How do these albums sell?
Claire Ritter: They don’t sell like hot cakes, but I’m sort of adjusted to the steadiness of the art. They are definitely out there and they do sell. Over a period of say, five years or so, it’s a slow process. You probably realize that working with other jazz musicians.
JazzReview: Well, I’m always amazed. You get an album like "Greener Than Blue" and like I said, I’ve been listening to it. I didn’t put it on and listen to it once. I’ve played it four or five times and I imagine that I will be playing it as time goes by. It is like your other albums, they age well.
Claire Ritter: That’s kind of you. Thank you.
JazzReview: And you know, it’s just...you have all of these marvelous musicians around, particularly in Southern California. You have this and they sell five hundred copies of an album, which I say, "My God, this should be the sound track that they play on the streets!" That just doesn’t happen.
Claire Ritter: I think it’s a very organic process and you know we are just not living in that era, unfortunately. I think there is an audience. There’s a small audience that does really appreciate it. I think most composers rely greatly on grant support in combination with teaching and performing. And I think if you can find a balance between all those, then you can continue to do your art. Really that is what it is. We know that making art is expensive. And it’s, you have to hang in there that’s for sure.
JazzReview: Speaking of the cover art, for "Greener Than Blue," when Migual Balle did the art for the CD, he included a Kanji symbol. Is that what you call it, on there?
Claire Ritter: That’s a Chinese symbol. He actually didn’t, that was, I added that in to add the aspect of what I wanted to say, and because of Todd’s involvement in the record. Migual is a friend of mine. He lives in France. He’s done several album covers for me. And, he’s a painter and a writer.
JazzReview: What does that symbol mean?
Claire Ritter: It means rising star, but did you read what it says underneath?
JazzReview: The star rises, ringing eternal, through bright eyes, warming a rose to bloom. Well ,it seems like you have an awful lot going on.
Claire Ritter: I’m excited. I’m really into this new project. I’m always thinking a step ahead.
JazzReview: Well, the O’Keefe Museum would be a great place to play that, and I would certainly make that.
Claire Ritter: Tucson Citizen Newspaper did a real nice review on "Greener Than Blue." And I was very honored. The museum would a great place to take musicians out and to debut this for them. You know her connection to nature, too. It is something that I think is very special.
JazzReview: Now the painting "Orange and Red Streak," is that in her museum currently, or is it in a private collection?
Claire Ritter: I’m not sure if the painting is in the museum in Santa Fe, or not. I would hope so. I found the painting in a book. Let me see if it says the collection. It was 1919, Orange and Red Streak, Oil on Canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s in the Alfred Stieglitz Collection; but it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece.
JazzReview: Alfred Stieglitz was her husband?
Claire Ritter: Yes, the photographer.
JazzReview: Yes. Well, this upcoming album is one that I eagerly anticipate. When do you think it will be released?
Claire Ritter: It is in the making process right now? It should be ready in a year and a half, or two years. I’d like to perform the piece at least two or three times in performance settings...to hone the ideas and refine them, and then we’ll go right into the studio.
JazzReview: I’m looking forward to that. Thank you so much for your time. It has been a pleasure.
Claire Ritter: Thank you. It was nice talking to you.