Ran Blake/Claire Ritter – Eclipse Orange – Zoning Recordings ZR 1013 [2/15/2019], 53:51 ****1/2:

(Ran Blake – piano; Claire Ritter – piano; Kent O’Doherty – saxophone)

The duo jazz recording is a staple of modern jazz. There are collaborations like Bill Evans & Jim Hall, Charlie Haden & Kenny Barron, Clark Terry & Red Mitchell, Gary Burton & Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden. The connective simplicity of a duo is inherent and  perceptive. Jazz piano duos are very rare. In 1978 Chick Corea & Herbie Hancock released An Evening With Chick Corea & Herbie Hancock In Concert. An earlier recording by Hank Jones & Tommy Flanagan (Our Delights) is the epitome of successfully navigating this challenging duo structure. So it is special when two accomplished jazz pianists unite for a live performance. Zoning Recordings has released a live recording (Eclipse Orange) by North Carolina native Claire Ritter. Recorded at Queens University, Ritter is joined by her teacher at The New England Conservatory Of Music, Ran Blake. Both of these artists are practitioners of Third Stream Music. This genre, coined by Gunther Schuller in 1957 has been described as a “50/50” synthesis of jazz and classical music. Improvisation is a hallmark of Third Stream music. Ritter and Blake celebrate the influence of jazz icon Thelonious Monk on his 100th birthday.

Portrait Ran Blake

Ran Blake

Eclipse Orange is a mesmerizing live performance featuring a wide array of Claire Ritter compositions, and standards from Monk, Gershwin, Jobim and Harold Arlen. Many of the tracks are two and three-minutes long, with only one clocking in over 5:00. So the two pianists manage to be both exploratory and concise simultaneously. The concert opens with a twist as Blake performs a medley of 3 Ritter compositions “Eclipse Orange”/“Waltzing The Splendor”/“In Between”. The number hits some punctuated modern classical emphasis while folding in mellower jazz inflections. The duo unites in a very brief (2:09) cover of “Blue Monk” with has an uncanny blend of blues and classical music. They revisit the title track as a lyrical, cinematic piece with lyricism and counterpoint. “Backbone” is a funkier exploration of Third Stream in a solo Ritter performance which is a nod to fellow teacher Mary Lou Williams. On “Short Life Of Barbara Monk” (A composition by Blake honoring the daughter of the jazz pianist), there is a moody undercurrent that shades the free-form chords. The two balance melodic harshness and lyricism in an improvisational setting.

Portrait Claire Ritter by JoAnn Sieburg-Baker

Portrait Claire Ritter
by JoAnn Sieburg-Baker

Ritter is joined by saxophonist Kent O’Doherty on a rhythmic syncopation of Monk (“I Mean You”) that speaks to the phrasing and timing that defined this jazz.pioneer. Shifting into a quartet of Ritter compositions, her adroit songwriting potency is versatile and potent. “In Between” is light and ethereal, while “Blue Grits” (with saxophone) is cool Southern jazz that swings. “Emerald & The Breeze” has a mid-19th century Americana that strikes at gospel aspiration. It is deeply moving and elegiac. The solo interpretation by Ritter is brilliant. Saxophonist O’Doherty returns on “High Top Sneakers” which is finger-snapping and more jazzy. Blake shines on Gershwin’s eternal standard “Summertime” which in a mere 2:18, he distills the nuanced textures of jazz, 20th century classicism and organic melancholy. Ritter and Blake reprise “Waltzing The Splendor” with a deft time signature and flourishes…in under 2 minutes. Blake solos on “Improvisation On Selma”.

The Ritter/O’Doherty tandem integrate bluesy jazz into a unique musical vision on “Karma Waltz”. This duo conclude their homage to Monk on “Cool Digs” which has a jaunty rhythm and tempo punctuation. Blake entertains jazz eclecticism with his compelling take on Hubert Powell’s “There’s Been A Change”. A certain highlight of this concert is Blake’s colorful and thoroughly original tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Brazil Medley”). In this extended piece (over 5 minutes), the accessible familiarity of the great Brazilian composer flows with jazzy creativity. Taking on another popular standard (“Over The Rainbow”), Ritter and Blake transform Harold Arlen’s unforgettable song from film nostalgia to meditative abstraction. The finale is a wild improvisational version of Claire Ritter’s “Integrity”.

Eclipse Orange is complex, serious jazz. It is a breath of fresh air. 

Claire Ritter Story, medley
Waltzing The Splendor
In Between
Blue Monk
Eclipse Orange
Short Life Of Barbara Monk
I Mean You
In Between
Blue Grits
Emerald & The Breeze
High Top Sneakers
Waltzing The Splendor
Improvisation On Selma
Karma Waltz
Cool Diggs
There’s Been A Change
Brazil Medley
Over The Rainbow

—Robbie Gerson