Originally published in the Belgian blues-magazine Back to the Roots
by Ludo Beckers
On the internet harmonica-forums have been raving the past couple of years over a young talented player who's ground-breaking new territory in the world of blues-harp.
His innovative way of handling the set standards in Chicago-blues harmonica-playing is unconventional, but nevertheless appreciated by many “old-schoolers” as well.
He's constantly on the road in a small bus, doing over 300 gigs a year, paying his band “New Blood” out of his own pocket when there's no gigs; touring the hard way.
Meet Jason Ricci; born in Portland, Maine, Italian roots, 32 years of age, stopped drinking and doing dope in time, still smokes too much, ready to go back to Europe in 2007.
Hello Jason, first the most obvious question: How did you initially get into harmonica?
I was in a punk band and wanted to play an instrument. The band picked the harmonica, probably so I wouldn't really mess anything up too bad, like if I was playing guitar or bass or something. Then my mom helped nurture the harmonica thing cause she's a big blues fan.
You are considered by many as one of very few people who can tastefully link old school Chicago-blues to the more modern one of so called “overblowers”.
Was Howard Levy a big influence on you, or did you develop your style from a different angle?
Well, Howard was the one who kept me into the harmonica instead of switching to saxophone, but initially Adam Gussow was the first overblower I ever really heard and he is REAL bluesy. I learned overblows from him around '96 or '97 but kind of kept them on the back burner cause I was still real into trying to learn Pat Ramsey's licks and also just completely still enamored with Little Walter and George Smith. I really like Satan and Adam though, and maybe here and there I would try a couple of licks of Adam's that had the 6 hole overblow, or the flat 3rd, whatever you want to call it. My big four guys in this order are: Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, Pat Ramsey, and Adam Gussow. Those are the only four I ever really intensely imitated and studied. Those are still my favorite guys. My style is maybe partially some kind of assimilation of those guys. I'm really lucky to have gotten to know Pat and Adam real well personally as well as musically in my life time.
But back to Howard... I got real into jazz and wanted to play that stuff, at least the heads, real bad! I was frustrated with the harmonica until I heard how well Howard played up and down three octaves... Not just an overblow here or there sort of like Gussow, but just a whole three octave chromatic deal.... So then I was like ..."OK, forget sax.. I'm half way there on harp... let me figure this out”.
A noticeable aspect of your playing is that you use incredibly fast runs with apparent ease.
Is this something you purposely practised?
Sort of... the whole speed element originally came from Pat Ramsey... all the triplet and sixteenth note licks he was playing really floored me... but they are firmly rooted in the blues as they are almost entirely rooted in the pentatonic scale with the exception of a major six and a lot of flat fives popping in there. I took those licks and double-timed them at first, and started playing them backwards a lot too. Sometimes I would mess up learning them and come across like five or six new ones... Mostly the real emergence of my approach came when I started exploring the pentatonic, blues, and major scales on my own, as well as a few of the modes like the mixolydian and the dorian... then I just started working with the scales and playing all of these scale exercises up and down two, maybe three octaves of the scale, then just started messing with all these intervals and patterns... It became this whole world of endless ideas that is still the basics of almost all my playing now... I never really think of Pat, or Adam or Little Walter any more unless I want to imitate them for fun... Rhythmic patterns added to those scales... I mean it's crazy with just a little knowledge of harmony and basic chord structure you can play forever and almost never sound like anyone else.
Being almost continuously on the road, what does your daily practise regime look like?
Almost never... I sometimes just run some triplet or sixteenth note stuff an hour or two before the gig, especially if I messed it up the night before... just quickly 10 minutes here or there a scale or two. Sometimes I'll try and learn a new tune or some jazz head or something... basically it's hard to practise because I'm almost always sharing a room with one of the guys so I don't want to annoy them either. When I practise I always stomp my foot as well, and the hotel room below will usually call the front desk and they'll ask me to stop... I've had the cops come before and they almost arrested me. So I practise almost never any more. I just think about music a lot.
I've never heard you play the chromatic harmonica with slide button.
I guess it's a conscious choice you made, to stick with the diatonic?
No, I totally like chromatic.... I just bought a CBH 2016 and have been working out on it a lot in private when I get tired of diatonic. Sometimes I move ideas from the chromatic that may be easy to perform on that instrument to the diatonic... like diminished scales and a few easy little licks based on half step patterns. If only I could move diatonic ideas to the big boy I'd be rockin'... generally though I think diatonic is more fun and perhaps more versatile for obvious reasons, if more challenging and/or awkward.
Let's step away from the harmonica for a minute.
You are openly gay in the mostly macho-world that the blues circuit is.
I assume this has caused problems at times?
Yes and yes.... It's kind of strange how backwards we are here in the land of the free... Maybe it's in some other places as well... my experience in Europe was a lot more laid back... I definitely keep my guard up here... lost a few fans, a few clubs, a festival here or there... A few of the clubs have tried to have me back lately since the band has gotten a little more popularity, but the damage was done and I have some pride left so I'll never play those places again.
Around 1995 you played in and around Holly Springs, Mississippi for a year or so, with Jr. Kimbrough's and RL Burnside's sons/grandsons.
I presume in those days you learned a few lessons in life too; being a young white guy in the land where the blues began?
Much more than I could ever say here. I wrote a lot on this subject recently for an article to post on my site www.jasonricci.com called : "The Best Shows I have ever heard". Basically, to make an attempt to shortly address that question here I would say: I just learned a lot about who I was and who I'm not.
When you played the Crossroads Café in Belgium*, before singing an anti-Bush song, you explained you don't do politically laden tunes anymore back home in the States.
Is it really that controversial to express such opinions at a gig? Does the American public want “entertainment only”?
No, I said it doesn't go too well in the States, or we don't do them all the time... and yes, it's a huge issue!!! We really can't play those tunes most places in the south and even places out in California or Colorado... It's whacky! They totally want entertainment only, and the real sad and ironic element is that these are the same people that grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Janis, Jimi Hendrix and Country Joe!! I guess they just gave up on everything. It hurts me a lot. Sometimes when I'm bored in one of these bars where I know it's gonna be a hot topic, I'll just bust it out to instigate a reaction out of them. There's always at least one person who gets it. The U.S.A. is fucked in general! Europe's gonna band together and invade our asses in like the next ten years the same way we all had to get together to stop Hitler. Mark my words.
You did a short European tour in May 2006.
Are you looking forward to do this more often?
Yes, definitely. Ideally I'd like to bring my own rig/amp for the future though, because back-line seems to always be an issue with me. I'm very compulsive and obsessive when it comes to my gear and amplified tone... I don't really like most sound-men either, and don't trust them to get me the right sound or even a decent acoustic/vocal mic sound.
Aside from that everyone here loves Euro-audiences because they take music and art and culture in general way more serious than many Americans; in some cases more serious than many American artists. So it's great for a band like us that doesn't really play dance music per sé, but we can really enjoy a show where the audience watches it the way most Americans watch a movie or something. Also I love the fact that Cuban cigars are not illegal there.
For Jason's discography, tour schedule and more, take a look at his site:
To download some of Jason's concerts visit: http://www.archive.org/details/JasonRicciandNewBlood
I asked Garry Hodgson, the man who captured most of these recordings on tape, which of the shows is his favorite. He chose this one:
and replied: "... aside from the music quality, which is always
excellent, this one has a great story in the middle of "Snowflakes and Horses",
and a really unique rap in the middle of "Feel Good Funk" about his days of
playing with Junior Kimbrough. The latter track is titled "Junior Kimbrough Story"."
* a snippet of that song (with impromptu participation of the interviewer ;-)) can be seen & heard here: