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?