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The Ritz finds a voice in contemporary jazz

The Ritz jazz group has performed at the Singapore Hilton and the Helsinki Jazz Festival, but it will be breaking new ground when it comes to the Clearwater Jazz Holiday.

The closest the vocal group has come to Pinellas County was playing a wedding in Miami a few years ago, said Melissa Hamilton, the group's lead vocalist and producer of its most recent album, Almost Blue.

"We're looking forward to it," said Hamilton of the trip to Clearwater. "I'm staying a couple of days to hear other people too."

Daryl Bosteels formed The Ritz in Boston in 1982 and the group has since gone through several incarnations, Hamilton said.

Back in 1989, the group was under some pressure from Denon, its record company, to cross over into the mainstream, Hamilton said.

The group responded by going in the opposite direction and making a series of personnel changes that led to the elimination of all electric instrumentation.

Despite that, Hamilton said business has been good. The group has signed a three-album contract with Denon.

The group of four vocalists and four instrumentalists lists its big influence as Lambert Hendricks and Ross, a '50s vocal jazz group.

"They are kind of like the big influence of all vocal jazz groups," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said the group plans to play a few ballads from its newest album as well as some more upbeat jazz in the swing tradition at the Clearwater festival.

Although The Ritz was founded in Boston, its members are scattered throughout New England, Hamilton said.

Hamilton is a protege of jazz legend Sheila Jordan. She also plays the flute, piano and guitar. She taught at the University of Maine and also worked in high school jazz programs.

Founder Bosteels was originally the group's pianist and is the arranger of many of its songs. His musical training was influenced by jam sessions in his family's home with Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa and Phil Wilson, according to the group's press information.

Valerie Hawk, also a vocalist, is the daughter of a big band singer and jazz drummer. She made her stage debut at 6 and joined The Ritz in 1990. By her teens she was a regular in Greenwich Village coffee houses and appears frequently in New York jazz clubs.

Vocalist and arranger Christopher Humphrey also joined the group in 1990. He is well known for his work in national jazz workshops and is jazz director at the University of New Hampshire.


The Ritz

at 8:45 p.m.