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Interview : Jason Ricci


Vincent BucherIn the Summer 2000 issue of Blues Access magazine, Adam Gussow wrote about Jason Ricci, calling saying his musical talent "is too great to be denied." Gussow also wrote that Ricci - along with Dennis Gruenling - is "one of the very best harmonica players of his generation." At the time of Gussow's writing, Ricci, a Maine native, was living in South Florida, getting both his harmonica chops and his life together. Last June he re-located to Raleigh, North Carolina and, from there, to Nashville, Tennessee. Currently he is touring as a member of Big Al & the Heavyweights.

Ricci, now 28, has already seen and experienced more than many players do in a lifetime. At 21, he performed at the 10th Annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. In Memphis, he won the Sonny Boy Blues Society Contest in 1995. He played for nearly a year as a member of Junior Kimbrough's band in Mississippi and gigged regularly with many of Kimbrough's sons and R.L. Burnside's sons. In 2000, Ricci won the Mars Music mega-store chain's nationwide Blues Harp Blowoff. Part of the prize was performing in New Orleans with Kim Wilson. Ricci has recorded three CDs (two on the Memphis-based North Magnolia Music Company independent label operated by harmonica virtuoso Billy Gibson, and one on his own). Ricci recently lent his talents to Keith B. Brown on Brown's "Got To Keep Movin'" CD ( And he recently signed an endorsement deal with Hohner.

Planet Harmonica: When did you start playing?

Jason Ricci: At 15. I wanted to play harmonica because I thought I wouldn't have to work hard to learn how to play it. (Laughs.)

PH: How long did it take you to figure out differently?

JR: By the time I got my first lesson! I was almost 21 when I was finally getting on the stages.

PH: Where was this?

JR: In Boise, Idaho, in college. There was an open mic that I wanted to play in but they would kick me out because I was too young. But the guy who owned the club found out I played harp and we were both big Canned Heat fans. The first time he let me play, I played "On The Road Again" note for note because I knew how to play like Al Wilson.

PH: Up to that point, though, you still hadn't really explored the founding fathers of blues harp, right?

JR: Yeah. That club owner gave me the first Little Walter record I ever had, and then Sonny Boy Williamson. At that point I was ready to listen to the guys who influenced my heroes, Butterfield and Alan Wilson. And I realized that those guys were awesome!

PH: Later you ended up living in Memphis. How?

JR: I got sick of playing blues out in Boise, Idaho. As I drove home to Maine, I stopped in Memphis. That was where I heard Pat for the first time.

PH: Pat Ramsey?

JR: Yeah. I vowed I'd move back to Memphis to learn from Pat. I saved up some money and when I arrived, Pat remembered me and he couldn't believe I came back. I just decided to get a job and just study Pat. He played every Wednesday and there was another kid there, Billy Gibson, who was Pat's protege.

PH: What is it about Pat's playing that really caught your ear?

JR: Well it was fancy but it was really melodic. It was affected but it never lost any soul. I was really close-minded towards guys like Sugar Blue and John Popper but here came Pat who was somewhere in between. And I was able to accept him.

PH: Another influence of yours, I know, is Adam Gussow. He spoke highly of you in his magazine column.

JR: Yeah, I forgot to mention Adam! I met him in Maine and he was the best damn harp player I ever saw after Pat. I learned Pat's stuff, or pretty close to it, then I heard Adam. In a jazzy way, Adam is more melodic than any harmonica player I'd heard, including Lee Oskar. Satan and Adam, to me, were the most unique thing that happened to the blues since Muddy Waters. People don't realize that was probably the best thing that happened to the blues in our lifetime.

PH: You've become pretty good friends with Adam.

JR: Yeah, well he was one of those guys who was real hard on me, like real honest and didn't humor me. So I was trying to win him over, playing his style and trying to assimilate the things he told me were wrong with my style.

PH: After Memphis you moved on to rural Mississippi. Tell me about that.

JR: One night in Memphis, I was playing on the street for spare change because I couldn't pay the rent. R.L. Burnside's kids - Jerry, Cedrick and Dwayne ? and Junior Kimbrough's sons, David and Kenny, heard my playing on the street and they got to likin' it. They had their own band and were looking for a sax but though I might work out. The next day I moved to David Kimbrough's house just south of Holly Springs, Miss. After that I was playing with David and Junior Kimbrough at juke joints everywhere, and I got paid too.

PH: So how long did you play with them?

JR: About a year. Those juke joints were a great education and I was really happy. I had everything I needed, like food and women and a house. I was really happy but I felt like I was isolated from the whole world and like nobody had heard me.

PH: For a kid from Maine that's gotta be a hell of a change.

JR: I identified with a lot of stuff in Adam Gussow's book about some of the situations that Adam got into. For a little while I lost sight of who I was kinda, amidst all the alcohol and drugs and the music and the juke joints.

[Note: Around this time, Jason spun down in a spiral of substance abuse. His problems were written about admirably by Florida journalist David Pulizzi. Read the story at]

PH: So, you went to Jackson, Miss., after that?

JR: Yeah. Billy Gibson recommended me to a band called The Hounds. I got the job with them and moved to Jackson. It was the first time I got to ride around in a van playing music for a living. I was so happy because I was doing what I always wanted to do, that I wasn't really interested in doing hard drugs. But then that band broke up.

PH: Then what?

JR: I went home and I started my own band for the first time. I met Enrico Crivellaro who is now playing guitar with Etta James and we ended up touring Europe together.

PH: And you moved to Florida in '98?

JR: Yeah, in '98. I was smoking crack, taking heavy pain killers ... I tried to get sober a couple of times and then they sent me to the rehab down here.

PH: Now, here in South Florida, you cleaned up your act and worked with the Nucklebusters Blues Band, pretty straight-up Chicago blues. And you played with Keith B. Brown, who's since moved over to Europe.

JR: Yeah. I put working with Keith right up there with working with Junior Kimbrough. It was delta blues and country and bluegrass. We recorded a CD, "Got To Keep Movin'," and there's absolutely some of the best harmonica playing I ever did. It's the first recording I did integrating overblows in a way that was effective and melodic.

PH: Talk about overblows and the new-style players you're influenced by.

JR: Well, Adam was the first one who taught me how to do overblows. But I didn't put them into my playing until about four years later when I went to rehab and did a lot of woodshedding. Adam had told me that if I didn't learn it, I wouldn't be one of the new generation. Anyway, then I heard Howard Levy and Carlos De Junco and I was just getting into jazz and bebop and some of that out-there stuff as well. For a time I wanted to give up harmonica and take up an instrument that was easier to play chromatically. But those guys allowed me to fall in love with my instrument for the second time in my life. Those guys are just as much a part of my life now as Little Walter was back then. At first it took a lot of work to even roughly imitate just one of their riffs. But I'm really glad I've been putting in that work. It's so rewarding to be able to play whatever is in the song.

PH: If you had to pick three artists or, better yet, CDs from the old school, and three from the new school to recommend?

JR: Okay I would say Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man," Muddy Waters' "His Best: 1947 to 1955," and Little Walter's "Hate to See You Go." Now two of those are Little Walter but you asked for three and that's too hard. I can name 15!
For the new albums, I'm going to give you four. First, "Mother Mojo" by Satan and Adam. Carlos De Junco's "Big Boy" is an unbelievable harmonica record. And, umm, Paul DeLay's "Nice and Strong." And Pat Ramsey's "Its About Time." Those are really good records.
If I could quickly mention: Mark Ford, Norton Buffalo, Dennis Gruenling, those guys are great, those guys aren't doing overblows or anything, but they're revolutionizing the instrument in their own way.

PH: What about Sugar Blue and John Popper ? You mentioned them earlier.

JR: I'm so grateful for them. My opinion has really changed. Earlier I was slamming on them. Now I listen to both of those guys, Popper AND Sugar Blue. If it wasn't for those guys, the public at large wouldn't know about harmonica. I know God put John Popper on the planet at this time for a reason ? he put him here because we needed someone to go off the board with speed and fanciness and luster and shine and all that. The general public needed to associate the harmonica with someone other than Neil Young and Bob Dylan. He's like the Eddie Van Halen of harmonica speed-wise, and Sugar Blue is too but in a more bluesy fashion. I really admire Popper for doing his own thing and I'm really proud of him for being so cool. I know he comes from the same school as you and me come from, I know he digs Little Walter and he's not just dissing those guys. He just has the mindset that its a different time and he's a different person and he can never be Little Walter and he knows that. He is John Popper and the only one, and I love him for it.

PH: What about your CD that you just recorded?

JR: Yeah I really like it. It's called "Dedicated." It's mostly instrumentals, there's three of four songs with words.

PH: Which covers do you do on that?

JR: I do "Prodigal Son" which is a traditional and I do "Soul Serenade" by King Curtis. This is with the guys from my band from Memphis.

PH: So you've got this album in the can, ready to go?

JR: Its done, everything's done, its ready to go, I just need the money to get it mastered and printed and I can't find the money.

PH: Talk about your gear. I know you're mainly blowing Golden Melody harmonicas, right?

JR: Yeah, I'll play them for the rest of my life unless they invent a harmonica just for me or something. I just like the way they respond and my girlfriend ? who is a big Howard Levy fan and she's a jazz singer ? said she thought they're closer to the human voice than the others and they didn't sound as raspy and the bends sound more accurate. That's true, to me. I learned how to adjust them to better suit the way I play and to make them overblow easier, so when they don't come out of the box playing right I can fix that.

PH: What's your main gigging amp? Is it still the Fender '59 Bassman re-issue?

JR: Pretty much everywhere, yeah. I love it. When I played in Europe they provided a Victoria Bassman but I actually like Fender's re-issue better for my sound. Other times I use an assortment of my little tiny tube amps like a Kalamazoo Model 1 and a silverface Vibro Champ. They're a lot of fun but they're one dimensional.

PH: What about other gear?

JR: Well, I use a Shure SM-57 microphone. I don't want any breakup happening from my mic before it gets to my amp, I want all my sound to happen when it comes out of the speakers. I like a distorted sound but I like it clean at the same time. One of the guys I dig tonewise, more than anyone, is Lee Oskar.

PH: I know you've tried a dozen different mics and always come back to the SM-57.

JR: I got turned on to the 57 by accident because all my harp mics got stolen. I was playing with Big Al and the Heavyweights, using a 57 but I couldn't get loud enough without feedback. Al came up to my Bassman and turned the treble and bass and all the knobs down and cranked the volume all the way up. And all of a sudden I had all the tone I'd been trying to get by fucking with those little knobs. I've been doing that ever since, with a few little adjustments that have become a part of my sound.

PH: Effects pedals?

JR: I use a Boss OC-2 octave pedal and I turn it all the way up and I turn the octaves all the way down. So actually, I'm using it as a compressor which lets me get a more overdriven sound without having to turn my amplifier all the way up. I also use an echo pedal. I've been thinking of switching to digital delay instead of analogue echo.

PH: Why?

JR: I don't want the fuzziness of the analog pedal. Ultimately, I'd like to have both but I'm apprehensive. I still have a little bit of traditionalist in me when it comes to gear. I'm a little afraid to go into the MIDI processor situation for harmonica. I want to maintain a little bit of integrity of the instrument.

Interview conducted by Mark Nessmith, a writer and harp player based in South Florida. Currently he is working with the acoustic blues trio Heidi & the El Cats.