Harmonica performer Ricci never holds back
Jason Ricci is passionate.
The singular harmonica player’s views, songs and — most notably — his live performances, are passionate.
Music critics have compared Ricci’s onstage intensity to that of Bruce Springsteen. After speaking with Ricci, it’s apparent that the comparison is not a stretch.
“I just get up there and start sweating,” said Ricci, whose band plays Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8 in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room. “Sometimes the band gets bummed on me because we’ll do a two-hour set without a break, and it doesn’t even seem like it to me. There is definitely a possession that takes place.”
In fact, the tireless Ricci has played more than 300 shows for each of the past five years. Jason Ricci & New Blood have been successful enough across the nation, with the exception of Kansas City, Mo., and the entire state of Texas, to release and album and tour a bit less in 2007.
The bad blood in the Lone Star State no doubt has to do with Ricci’s outspokenness and views about the U.S. government and its wars.
“A large part of the country is willing to start fistfights with me after the gig because of it,” Ricci said.
Jason Ricci and New Blood’s first album, released Oct. 23 on Eclecto Groove Records, touches on blues, jam and jazz on 11 original songs. The 12th track is a cover of Sun Ra’s “Rocket Number 9,” the album’s title. Sun Ra was another one-of-a-kind artist, an avant-garde jazzman.
“Any music that comes from a place of sincerity is what moves me,” said Ricci, 33. “That’s the main ingredient. I don’t care if the players are talented technically or not. If they are saying something and they mean it, then I am moved by it. It can be rap or anything. I like every kind of music. But every genre also has a lot of (bull) in it.”
Notable bluesmen David and Kenny Kimbrough and Duwane Burnside, the son of R.L. Burnside, discovered Ricci when he was playing on a Memphis street. The Kimbroughs were two of Junior Kimbrough’s 36 children. Ricci traveled to Holly Springs, Miss., to audition for David Kimbrough’s band. Then he moved in. He stayed more than a year, every Sunday playing with David and Junior Kimbrough.
“The biggest thing I learned from playing and living with the Kimbroughs and the Burnsides was that I would never, ever be one of those guys,” Ricci said. “As much as wanted to be a young black blues performer from Mississippi I couldn’t escape the fact, I was a young, white kid from the suburbs of Maine.”
Ricci learned who he wasn’t. And he is unapologetic about who he is, having learned a life lesson from the late blues legends. He said attempting to play “authentic” blues would be hubris.
“To me that word is dead,” Ricci said. “The second you imply that anything needs to be saved, you are contributing to its extinction. Jazz snobs and blues Nazi. Those terms and kinds of mind-set is devastating to the music because the people they are trying to preserve were innovators and so they are missing the spirit of the music.
“If John Coltrane had sat around playing Lester Young licks for the purpose of keeping jazz alive in the fifties and sixties we wouldn’t be burning John Coltrane albums now. If Little Walter had spent his time mimicking Sonny Boy (Williamson) I and II, he wouldn’t have ever cut sides for Chess. He’d have just been some B-side performer. But no, he pushed the music into a new generation. I’m not saying that we’re trying to do that because I don’t have that degree of pretension in me, but I am saying that I’m trying to play music that’s true to me and I’m not trying to mimic a formula.”
Produced by John Porter, “Rocket Number 9” is hardly formulaic. Porter also has produced albums for Tommy Castro, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Los Lonely Boys.
“If it wasn’t for the telepathy that took place early in the sessions, it would have been difficult for me to trust him on a lot of his ideas,” Ricci said. “But after I saw that he was capable of seeing and thinking the same way I was, then I knew he was capable of seeing and thinking better than I could. At that point if was where the submission took place. He’s absolutely brilliant.”
The track “Snowflakes and Horses” borrows from R.L. Burnside’s “Snake Drive” and uses obvious metaphors to drug abuse. “Rocket Number 9” brings harp and homage to Sun Ra’s extended fusion jam. Ricci said he will include a Sun Ra song on every album he records.
Motivated by the events after Sept. 11, “Deliver Us” is the most powerful track on the CD and probably leads to the aforementioned post-gig fisticuffs.
“I was inspired the minute I saw the Republicans on TV and they were happy that it had happened, and I could see the wheels turning,” Ricci said.