These companion CDs reveal the artistry, vision and talents of composer-pianist-educator Claire Ritter. Drawing from studies at Queens College with the late jazz luminary Mary Lou Williams and postgrad work with pianist/composer Ran Blake at Boston's New England Conservatory, the Charlotte, N.C., native's latest recordings straddle the line between fetching jazz improvisations and placid new-music expressions.
Ritter's Castles in the Air is a swanky project supported by two grants. Her solid writing, understated keyboard style and seamless interaction with side musicians on 12 sonorous tracks (including "Opus 17: New Southern Symphonic Suite for Modern Dance") and two Monk tunes, provide for a novel yet relaxed listen. Ritter interacts equitably in varied settings with Stan Strickland (flute, bass clarinet, kalimba), Takaaki Masuko (percussion), Christine van Arsdale (harp, voice), Johannes Ammon (violin), Andrew Blickenderfer (acoustic bass) and guest Steve Swallow (electric bass). Pleasureful nuggets abound, especially Strickland's sensitive, streaming flute improvisations on "Song in a Canyon" and "River of Joy," and Masuko's tasty percussive splashes on six tracks that spur Ritter's adventurous side. The only disappointment is the brevity of the album.
River of Joy features Ritter in a serene solo piano setting, with mentor Ran Blake and guest Steve Swallow appearing on one track each of the 16. Playing mostly originals, Ritter approaches the keyboard as a painter, applying splashes of color, dabs of contrast and subtly adjusting tempo and dynamics to create masterful soundscapes. Her polished, crisp technique is apparent, yet it's her impassioned, melodious, idea-rich approach that grabs attention. While she's a gifted composer, Ritter also soulfully interprets standards, lending a Midas touch to treasures such as "When I Fall in Love," "Straight, No Chaser" and "Sunny Side of the Street."