When Jim Ridl was a youth in Dickinson, North Dakota, his father and his piano teacher, who was studying at the local teachers’ college, worked out an interesting form of barter. “(My teacher) was very generous,” says Ridl. “When my father asked him what his rates were, he said, ‘I am not going to charge you to teach your son.’ He must have thought I had some potential. My father said, ‘I am going to supply you with a side of beef.’ For a college student, that had to have been really attractive.”
Ridl (pronounced riddle) turned out to be quite the jazz pianist. He is one of several performers who will appear at this year’s third annual Morrisville Jazz Festival, Sunday, September 10, which features 10 hours of performances by jazz musicians from the Trenton/ Morrisville area. Ridl, who now lives in Hamilton, joins jazz diva Ella Gahnt, a vocalist; saxophonist Richie Cole; vocalist Mark Murphy with the Donna Antonow Trio; saxophonist Eric Mintel and his quartet; and the Dave Weckl Band. The Morrisville Fest takes place in Williamson Park on Delmorr Avenue. “I have played there once before,” Ridl says. “It’s a really beautiful, relaxed atmosphere, right along the Delaware River.”
Ridl grew up on the farm owned by his parents, Gordon and Agnes, who, in addition to being farmers, were professionals. Ridl’s dad was a high school science teacher, and his mom was a legal secretary. He is the youngest of five children, and the family’s existence and environment was not unlike that captured in the cult film “Napoleon Dynamite.” Without the zaniness, of course.
“If you have been to that part of the country, South Dakota, or Kansas, or parts of Wyoming, there are a lot of high plains,” Ridl says. “It’s very open, and there are lots of trees and rolling hills. It’s very pretty.” It was in this environment that Ridl grew up. It was actually quite cosmopolitan because Dickinson was a college town, home of Dickinson State University. “It was a very interesting place, this teacher’s college,” he says. “It attracted people from all over the country and the world, especially Canada, because of its curriculum and its price, which was very attractive. In this age, and even when I was growing up, music and culture reached so many places.” His hometown had 25,000 people, pretty much a minor population center for the region, Ridl says.
Both of Ridl’s parents attended Dickinson State, and so did Keith Trauquair, his first piano teacher. Gordon and Agnes Ridl turned their son on to many forms of music, including jazz, but it was the Canadian-born Trauquair who really opened the young musician’s eyes and ears. “He turned me on to Miles Davis, Trane, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, all the great jazz pianists,” Ridl says. “But he also turned me on to some great country players, such as Floyd Kramer and Charlie Rich.”
It was during high school, Ridl says, that he decided that music was going to be his career. “Thirty-two years later, I’m not stopping,” says the 47-year-old pianist. After leaving North Dakota, Ridl moved to Denver, where he studied at the University of Colorado at Denver and met his wife, Kathy, who has played string instruments on some of Ridl’s recordings. They now live in Hamilton “because it is close to the New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia scenes,” Ridl says.
At the Morrisville Jazzfest Ridl will perform for about an hour with his trio — with Francois Moutin on bass and Ari Hoenig on drums. We’ll play some of my originals as well as some standards,” he says. “We tend to stretch out, so there might not be as many tunes.”
In a jazz trio, said Ridl, “there is a lot of room for improvisation and just individual interpretation of tunes. When I put something together with this trio, Ari and Francois are just fantastic players, very individualistic with unique styles. Anything I put together, I tell them to bring their own thing into it.”
He has been able to find musicians to play with because he has, in his words, finally been able to establish himself as a viable member of the jazz scene. “Just playing gigs with other musicians is very, very exciting,” he says. “You play with others, they hear you play, and they turn you on to someone else who plays, and you exchange phone numbers. It really is like there are cliques, even if they are not hardcore, it’s still about who knows each other.”
Ridl has released five CDs as a leader, and he has also recorded, or will have recordings released, with musicians such as Denis DiBlasio, Bill Lacy, the Dave Liebman Big Band, and Pat Martino.
He often goes outside what is considered to be the mainstream jazz repertoire. On his latest CD, “Your Cheatin’ Heart and Other Works,” he tackles the title tune, made famous by Hank Williams Sr., and the “Tennessee Waltz.”
“I never played in a country band,” says Ridl, “but the influence of the little things, the twists and turns of the country pianist, always were in me just a bit. When I got to those (country) tunes a couple of years ago, I came to realize that these were really nice tunes.”
Of course, the way Ridl plays the country tunes are sometimes not very close to the originals. “I keep the integrity of the tunes. It’s not like I totally rearrange them into something completely different. Parts of ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ have phrases of 7 and 5 in between, and I think I might freak out some of the country people with the hipper stuff.”
In 2003 Ridl wrote several compositions that evoked the pastoral, rural area in which he grew up. His CD “Door in a Field” was written in honor of his family background and its history in North Dakota. His wife played accordion on the record, which contains many stylistic and harmonic concepts from his Czech and Norwegian heritages. In the future, Ridl says, he would like to expand on those concepts either in arrangement or composition.
“I had been able to find some recordings of my grandfather’s (accordion) playing from the ’70s,” says Ridl. “I had not done anything specific with that, but I would like to orchestrate some of that music and put a different twist on it.”
Morrisville Jazz Festival, Sunday, September 10, noon to 10 p.m., Michael Sherlock Foundation, Williamson Park, Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville. Third annual festival features Ella Gant, Jim Ridl, Richie Cole, Donna Antonow, and Eric Mintel. $15. Free for children under five. 215-295-8181.