Seven Inches of Minnesota Music: The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, 'Mij Amsterdam'
While it may have seemed like the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group were a part of the lounge and swing music revival of the '90s, Jim Ruiz, his brother Chris and then wife, Stephanie Winter were more enthused with European pop, mod culture, new wave punk and two-tone ska music of the '80s.
As a band, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group combined their love for music, their friends and surroundings into a sound that was out of character for the Twin Cities at the time. While alternative, shoegazer dream-pop, and grunge reigned supreme in most venues in town, the band found their home on Chicago's Minty Fresh label, who released Jim's ode to Holland, "Mij Amsterdam," the first single from the band's essential 1995 full length, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, 1995
A travelogue of sorts, "Mij Amsterdam" recalls Jim's experience visiting the city he would eventually spend a year studying in while in college. Talking to me from the bar at Buca in downtown Minneapolis, Jim tries to remember the song's history.
"That was one of the first songs I ever wrote. I probably wrote it in 1985," he tells me in between ordering a glass of wine and salad. "When I lived there, going to school, we stayed with some people on Vanwoustraat."
"I was a big fan of John Irving and he always put his stories in Vienna so to me I was using the same optimism and enlightenment I was feeling from that place."
Starting with simple jazz chords and cymbal washes, the song jumps right in with Jim and Stephanie's vocal harmonies. "What's interesting to me about the song is the first two chords, how there's really no intro," Ruiz says. "I'd discovered minor sevenths, and was just excited about playing that chord. It was liberating to me to learn how to use it."
One favorite line from the song, "If you play the drums you'll go far because everyone here plays guitar," rings true. Considering just about every drummer in the Twin Cities eventually found a seat in the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, it could be said the song's lyrics are almost interchangeable with the B-side, Jim's tribute to his hometown "Minneapolis."
"In fact there are three different drummers on the seven inch! Stephen Ittner's drums on 'Mij Amsterdam' are just swingin,' Bryan Hanna played on 'Minneapolis' and Chris Stock played on 'Jody,'" he laughs. "I was listening to a lot of big band on KLBB radio and, you know, since Tony Bennett had his San Francisco song I thought 'This town needs a song!'"
Never short on hometown pride, "Minneapolis" is a masterpiece of sorts, a nod to Louis Armstrong's "Sleepytime Down South." The song quickly rounds up all the best aspects of life the city in acute detail. "My brother Chris just nailed the solo on 'Minneapolis,' Ruiz remembers. "He did this harpsichord-y thing that was just amazing. He never played it again that way."
After touring the country with a myriad of line-ups in the band as well as some visits overseas to Japan, where they had a modest following, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group put out a follow up to Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, 1998's Sniff, a record that showcased Stephanie Winter not only on the cover but taking more lead vocals and writing on the collection of bossa-nova jazz and 60's Euro-pop inspired tracks.
Once the pair split up personally and professionally, Stephanie would start her own band, Stepahine Says, while Jim would keep the band together for a while and continuing to write new songs.
"I've had 10 years since the last one. So there's definitely songs!" he insists. "I really got left behind with the the whole technology thing. I've slowly made some demos with Peter Anderson and plan on making a new record very soon with Alan Clapp (of the Orange Peels), who I have a mutual admiration and interests with. He covered one of my songs on his record and he knows what he's doing in the studio."
Having set up a new website for himself, Jim is soliciting friends and fans to help fund his "difficult third album" at thelegendaryjimruiz.com. Anxious to record again and start playing shows, Jim has a newfound enthusiasm for music. While there aren't any big public appearances planned, he's looking to use a somewhat traditional but new approach to the band, passing out charts to his songs to seasoned pros a la the jazz veterans of the past. Asked when his next gig is, Jim seemed hesitant to spill the beans.
"Actually the only gig I have planned I am really looking forward to playing. It'll be for my Dad on his 80th birthday later this month."
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