Jason Ricci: A Different Shade of Blue
“ I hate 'dumbing down' for the effect of a very contrived 'soul' if it's not real. The original masters would not be the original masters had they not modernized and intellectualized the voices of their predecessors. ”
Jason Ricci is pushing the boundaries of the blues harp. Rather than depending on the time-worn riffs of another artist, he explores the outer limits of his instrument by borrowing from influences not often associated with the blues. This may not sit well with some of the purists, but it has been forty years since Walter Marion Jacob's passing, so there's no telling where he may have taken the blues had he lived.
Says Ricci, "I listen to all kinds of music, so I draw inspiration from all kinds of music and instruments, but more because there so much to study in the area of scales, modes and intervals, rhythmic patterns, and melody and harmony."
As many artists have, he admits "looking back," to having studied Little Walter, George Smith and Paul Butterfield "really seriously, like eight hours or more a day for three years. I don't use the term 'study' lightly.
"As far as New School, I definitely studied Pat Ramsey as much or more as Little Walter, and Adam Gussow quite a bit too. He taught me how to over-blow."
Today, Ricci continues "I don't study anyone any more at all....not because there isn't a wealth of stuff out there. I just don't have time and I feel I would really be shortchanging myself a true expressional, musical, and creative opportunity by doing that. Those fundamentals [music theory] I just mentioned, I realize now, are blueprints and a means to a limitless, and constantly growing ability and level that can aid in personal expression; whereas for me to just study one guy or a riff or something, that's all-it-is-and-ever-will-be is that guy's riff.
"Instrumentally, these days, it's the chords, melody, and rhythm of the song that dictates how I will interpret it and approach my harmonica solos. I like to listen to what the rest of the band is playing and try to find something in that mood, scale, or rhythm to get ideas for what to play on the song."
This dedication to exploring the harmonica has earned him recognition from his peers, as well as many of the "venerable vets" of the music.
But what can a white kid of above average intelligence, from an upper middle class background know about the blues? In light of prevailing attitudes of the country's re-elected top administration down, plenty. He's got a different shade of the blues.
All About Jazz: When did you first pick up the blues harp?
Jason Ricci: I was fourteen years-old, and playing in a punk rock band. I thought it would be a cheap and easy instrument to learn.
AAJ: What was your introduction to the harp?
JR: My mother made me take lessons from this music teacher named Dave Daniels at my high school. He taught harmonica on the side in addition to banjo, guitar etc... He wasn't a very good player but he knew a lot about the instrument and its players and applications. For example: which notes bent and how many half steps and how technically to play in four or five positions. He introduced me to just about everybody who had and was playing professionally up to that time from Jazz Gillum to Howard Levy. That was sixteen years ago.
AAJ: Who were your earliest influences?
JR: My very first big influence was Sonny Terry. He was the first I guy I tried to mimic by playing and rewinding the tape deck. Then I came across Al Wilson from Canned Heat and that really knocked me out. At that point I hadn't spent a whole lot of time really listening to Little Walter, so that amplified thing just got me first by way of Canned Heat, plus I liked the songs a lot and I could relate to that rocked up biker, hippie blues stuff because I was also digging a lot of Janis Joplin and Hendrix and other '60s stuff at that time in my life.
AAJ: Did you have any prior formal musical training? What instruments?
JR: Not really. I took some guitar lessons from the same teacher after a little while.
AAJ: Within the first year after you went on stage you took a couple of awards. What were they?
JR: I had actually been gigging around the Northwest, pretending to go to college for my folks for about three-and-half years, when I moved to Memphis after I heard Pat Ramsey play there one night when I was driving home from Idaho to Maine. I just decided right there and then, and I even told Pat, that I was going to go home and work for the summer, quit school and follow him around to all his gigs.
And that was what I did. After I moved to Memphis, I won the Sonny Boy Blues Society contest and all that and did a couple of cool high profile gigs around the area. So I was already very serious, at least in my mind, and had been playing the instrument for seven years, studying Little Walter, George Smith and Sonny Boy II really seriously, eight hours or more a day for like three years.
AAJ: Since then you have added several more. What are they?
JR: The only other award I remember winning other than like best instrumentalist in the paper etc....was the Mars Music Megastore International Harp Blow-Off, and that was really cool to win. It didn't really open a lot of doors, but it was fun, and really flattering to know they picked my solo out of a thousand-plus guys, or something, I was told.
AAJ: You have really made many of the "venerable vets" of the harmonica sit up and take note of your abilities. How does it feel to get so much attention so early in your musical career?
JR: It feels great. I don't feel, however, that it's that early in my career, maybe it is. I'm thirty now. I got offered a job with Sam Lay that I turned down when I was nineteen. It feels like I've been doing it forever. It's been a tough climb, as blessed as I have been, and I'm very grateful. I brought a lot of my troubles on myself, as well, and I feel it would have probably taken off even a little earlier if I hadn't been so hell-bent on living the "Blues Life. The other thing is, if you look back at those blues veterans' careers, most of them were all cutting albums on major labels in their teens and twenties. A lot of them like Junior Wells and [James] Cotton were touring with older cats like Muddy [Waters] when they were in their pre-teens. So I feel old already.
AAJ: You're right, but the idea that we have younger artists who follow this generation is reassuring, as many people have asked what the next generation of blues artists looks like, or whether there is one at all.
How many CDs have you recorded? On how many have you appeared? We see three available on your site. Where can we pick up the others?
JR: I have recorded five on my own. The first two on a small Memphis label run by Billy Gibson, called North Magnolia Records. One was self-titled, the other was called Down at the Juke. Those are unavailable and out-of-print for the most part. I'm pretty happy with that situation for obvious audible reasons. However, there is some songwriting and tolerable playing on both of those, but mainly I hate the vocals. The third was called Dedicated. I never released it because I held onto it too long and ended up hating it before it went to press. The fourth was the one I'm currently selling called Feel Good Funk. That was the first one that I rocked over blows on. The newest one is called Live at Checkers Tavern, and should be out by the time this is published. We are also working on another one right now as well that I know is going to be the one for me as far as songwriting and lyrics goes.
AAJ: With each song you do, you have a fresh, new voice. What is your inspiration for your new material?
JR: First of all, thanks! That's so sweet of you to say. Instrumentally these days it's the chords, melody, and rhythm of the song that dictate how I will interpret it and approach my harmonica solos. I like to listen to what the rest of the band is playing and try to find something in that mood, scale, or rhythm to get ideas for what to play on the song. I listen to all kinds of music so I draw inspiration from all kinds of music and instruments.
AAJ: Is there anyone whom you study? Old school? New school?
JR: I don't use the term study lightly. I think looking backwards [Old school] I probably only really studied Little Walter, George Smith, and Paul Butterfield.
As far as New school, I definitely studied Pat Ramsey as much or more than Little Walter, and Adam Gussow quite a bit too. He taught me how to over-blow.
Those two are big for me. I don't study anyone anymore at all....not because there isn't a wealth of stuff out there. If I was, it would be Howard Levy, but more because there's so much to study in the area of scales, modes and intervals, rhythmic patterns, and melody and harmony. Plus, I just don't have time and I feel I would really be shortchanging myself a true expressional, musical, and creative opportunity by doing that.
Those fundamentals [music theory] I just mentioned, I realize now, are blueprints and a means to a limitless, and constantly growing ability level that can aid in personal expression, whereas for me to just study one guy or a riff or something, that's all-it-is-and-ever-will-be is that guy's riff.
AAJ: Do you have any peers whom you admire? Harp? Non-harp?
JR: I admire Howard Levy, Carlos Del Junco, Pat Ramsey, Adam Gussow, Michael Peloquin, Paul Delay, Wade Schumann and Paul Linden these days.
AAJ: You have toured with the Kimbroughs and R.L. Burnside. Is there anyone you would like to tour with?
JR: I was in Junior's band so to speak,The Soul Blues Boys. The Soul Blues Boys are a group of people, mostly R.L.'s and Junior's kids, or whoever happens to be able to play and has the interest in backing up those guys when they play out in town [Holly Springs, Oxford, Senatobia, Mississippi]. There was no set band or set touring band. Fat Possum would not pay for the whole band as it was to go on tour with Junior or R.L. then, especially at that time.
At that time [1995-1996] I was mostly playing with Junior's oldest son, David Malone Kimbrough, because he was the most ambitious and had the most gigs. You have to remember also that Junior was doing one tour a year, then to three gigs at House of Blues by plane, and he wasn't very popular because he was still alive and R.L. hadn't cut that record Ass Pocket of Whiskey with Dave Spencer for Epitaph, so those guys were pretty well obscure except to historians and ethnomusicologists.
Very few people cared at that time. Then came all this North Mississippi hype after Junior died, and they started calling R. L. a "punk crossover artist," and all that, then all these bands form around that sound. By that time I was off into Eddie Harris and Lou Donaldson and soul/jazz guys among other things. I had Kinney Kimbrough playing drums on a couple of tunes influenced by that sound on my record Down at the Juke, which was dedicated to Junior before he was sick and died.
AAJ: Commanding as much attention as you have so early in your career, is there anyone you would feel honored to open for? Living or dead, if it were possible to play with them again.
JR: I really would like to open for The Derek Trucks Band or tour with them. I think he's very smart and still unbelievably soulful. I am really into his ideas about music, spirituality and recording and everything. As far as someone dead goes, it would have to be Little Walter. I don't feel I would ever be worthy or deserving of opening for my biggest hero, John Coltrane.
AAJ: For the "gearheads" in our readership, what equipment do you play?
JR: Fender Bassman, Analog Delay, Boss Octave Pedal as a preamp/compressor only (no octaves) lately; here and there the kind of anti-feedback box and a Samson wireless system into an EV Re-10 mic or sometimes a [Shure SM]57. I play Hohner Harps under contractGolden melodies. I tweak them myself and my buddy in Florida, Earl the Pearl, sells me his custom wood combs for those that are really cool if you like Golden Melodies, which I do.
AAJ: You have made the diatonic harp a chromatic. Do you play the chromatic? Are there chromatic artists you listen to?
JR: I want to start playing the chro again. But I keep breaking them and not fixing them. I like Stevie Wonder and Paul Delay on that instrument. In third position it's like an open tuned guitar for blues harp guys so I really only admire Mark Hummel, William Clarke, Norton Buffalo and George Smith. Basically in a jazz context I think it's an instrument that doesn't really sing very much. That will probably all change this year at SPAH [The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica] though....
AAJ: What are some of the biggest issues facing today's musicians?
JR: There's of course the obvious stuff we see every day on the road: People go out less than they used to. They've got DVDs and surround sound and home theaters and all that, not to mention kids and double income households etc....DUI's are punished more harshly then ever, so going out and drinking then driving home with any alcohol in your blood can result in prison time or the loss of your drivers license. Then you got these places banning cigarettes on top of that.
It's just a lot of work for a stable person to go out and see a band these days. The bands are getting paid hundreds of dollars less than they got in the '70s, and gas is two dollars a gallon and everything else costs way more now then it did then, not to mention no clubs want to take a chance on a decent national act on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. So how am I supposed to be able to afford to make my way to L.A. from Nashville playing Friday and Sat shows without flying?
Where art is concerned, I can only speak on the blues because that's the only circuit I've really worked completely.
[Now] I'm going to offend some people here, but I think as far as blues goes with some of the Caucasian performers, it's almost become like the old black face-vaudeville-medicine shows, and/or a history lesson. I think the whole retro movement, however fun and entertaining/danceable/skilled it may be, is missing the real spirit that blues music intendedwhich was, in addition to being fun and groovy, also very sincere and close to, if not part of, the lives of the performers who played and wrote it, which was evident in the lyrics as well as the music. You can hear the past in the recording techniques, the riffs, the equipment and everything.
I haven't once said in a conversation ever in my life that "my baby done left me so why would a white kid like me start to sing that? That's why I like modern players as well, because they know their history, yet feel the need to take that knowledge and turn it into something musical they can relate with their lives. I could be wrong, but wasn't that what Muddy Waters did when he plugged in? Wasn't that what Walter did when he played through an amp? Or what Sonny Boy said when he sang lyrics like "she has a cool disposition ?
I hate "dumbing down for the effect of a very contrived "soul if it's not real. The original masters would not be the original masters had they not modernized and intellectualized the voices of their predecessors. I don't "declare and I haven't "reckoned in a while. I'm a fairly well-educated middle class white kid from Maine. I'm sober six years now and I'm also gay.
Philosophically, I could care less if that's not authentic enough for some other white guy from wherever with a straw hat, cowboy boots, a King Biscuit festival shirt and a blues society membership card. I perceived somewhere along the way that honesty was a key ingredient in this music. Unfortunately for me, and the younger kids in their teens who might be attracted to blues, if it were more often treated sincerely, that guy with the hat is a huge portion of the talent/CD buyers for this music I play and call blues, and that directly affects my career pretty much daily. Why did you have to ask me that question?
AAJ: We are interested in the way our artist friends think. In as much as it is our desire to document the ideas that are forging the direction for this music, you guys are down there on the frontline on a day-to-day basis. We are interested in your experiences and we knew, from reading your website, that you were no mental lightweight..
Considering the tremendous contributions that the GLBT [Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered] community has made to the arts, and more particularly the contributions to music made by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Freddy Mercury, Elton John, among other artists possibly too long to list, with regards to the blues, does the gay community bring something different to the table? Possibly a heightened sophistication, or a deeper sensitivity? Or is this stereotypical assumption? Is this question fair at all?
JR: I'm not one to propagate stereotypes of any kind. Obviously anyone who has ever experienced life for themselves would surely agree that many stereotypes are based upon generalizations that appear frequently enough to further these outside perceptions. I'm not sure I or any other GLBTs bring anything special to the table other than fighting for equality and the urgency of expressing our needs emotions and experiences to a world that views them as less than, fictional or not, equivalent to their own.
There are certainly parables that could be drawn to a gay man or woman's life today, and the lack of rights we have to that of the black/African American what-have-you experience of past days. I'm not allowed to be married legally, can be fired at any time for being gay legally, and am discouraged frequently often with the threat/threats of violence any time I am open about who I am, either alone or with my boyfriend.
I have been boycotted by members of the Black Swamp Blues Society in Toledo, told by the Slippery Noodle in Indy to "tone it down, have received blatant and not so blatant threats and verbal abuse as often as once every three shows or more, as well as a few death threats to boot. So as a gay man and a member of a community I would answer your question ultimately by saying: "Yes, we have a lot to write about and yes, our lives are deeply sensitive and we have to have a heightened sense of sophistication, otherwise we will be shot down and persecuted even more than we have been and currently, especially with this fascist administration in office and homophobia being another aspect of patriotism these days.
AAJ: You have mentioned Derek Truck's spirituality. In listening to sound clips from the work you did with the Knucklebusters, and the cover for your CD Live At Checkers Tavern, in which a likeness of yourself sits in what is an obviously lotus position, can we draw from this that you have a spiritual side?
JR: I do. I believe this quote by the wonderful and tragically deceased underrated comedian and philosopher Bill Hicks pretty much some up my views: "All matter is really energy condensed to a slow moving vibration. We are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death. Life is only a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves.
AAJ: Is Live At Checkers Tavern your most current CD, or have you have since released another?
JR: This is my most current and it should/better be out by the time this is published.
AAJ: Are these things [a heightened sophistication/deeper sensitivity/spirituality/ or any that applies] reflected on your new CD?
JR: All of the above I hope!
AAJ: Tell us about this CD
JR: This is my first CD since Down At The Juke where I'm really proud of the songs, lyrics, playing, and arranging. It's also my first to really showcase my road band. It should be out by early December  on the Blue Sunday label.
AAJ: What are your aspirations for your career?
JR: Just to keep going the way I am on the road, traveling, staying true to myself on and off stage, make enough money to have food, shelter and real fancy clothes, and keep progressing on the harp.
AAJ: Lastly (and we mean this humorously), with the popularity of television's Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, do you think the blues need a makeover?
JR: Totally needs a makeover! Badly! Enough with the fake suits and sunglasses etc...! Queer Eye for the Blues Guy is in full effect from the Ricci camp. But I still can't get my own band to rock some fashion statements, so I have a lot of work to do!
Jason Ricci, Rocket Number 9 (Electo Groove, 2007)
Jason Ricci, Live At Checkers Tavern (Blue Sunday Entertainment, 2005)
Jason Ricci, Blood On The Road (Rah Fox, 2005)
Courtesy of Jason Ricci