What would George Winston sound like if he took a stack of Monk recordings into the woodshed with him for a couple of years? Maybe Claire Ritter. Charlotte, NC-based Ritter does share some of the same crystalline, shimmering, foot-never-far-from-the-sustain-pedal pianistic touch of which the Windham Hill where-is-he-now Sunday morning ear-wind guy of the eighties was so fond. However, she injects much more direction, jazz mind, and compositional purpose in her playing than Winston ever did.
"River of Joy," a recent recording of solo performances that was released at the same time as her small group effort "Castles in the Air," also contains much more space between the notes than most less confident musicians are comfortable leaving. Because of this and the relatively short length of most of the tracks (2 to 3 minutes), the songs become focused poems recited by a deliberate reader who takes time to breathe. Some pieces are abstract, but none would shock most grandmothers.
Fourteen of the sixteen tracks on the disc are solo performances by Ritter, with twelve original compositions. "True" features electric bassist Steve Swallow multitracking his instrument and sounding like a low-register bossa nova guitarist on Ritter’s composition. Ran Blake sounds great on "Tar," the only other track not featuring Ritter’s piano.
The music sounds very American throughout, but listen after listen, my mind’s eye sees a Japanese scene like the rock garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto. Big, attractive cluster-chords sit like islands in a sea of silence, gentle currents, and ripples. "River of Joy" has enough lyricism to please those who like their music pretty and enough jazz sophistication to command the attention of the conservatory crowd.