Few – if any — folks in the blues community are more complex that Jason Ricci. An undisputed innovator who’s taking the harmonica in directions it’s never gone before, he’s a shining star with no apparent limit to his creativity. The only obstacles in his way on the road to success have been his own self-admitted personal issues.
Throughout a career filled with incredible highs and cataclysmic lows, Jason’s always spoken frankly about his drug addiction — something that’s landed him in jail and rehab on multiple occasions — as well as his sexual ambiguity, an anachronism in which he both openly identifies as a “queer/bisexual” and lives happily in a loving relationship with a woman.
Considering that he’s living in a world currently plagued by disease, political and social upheaval and his own history, you might be concerned that Ricci, like many of us, might be approaching a breaking point again.
After all, the most recent time Blues Blast caught up with him in 2015, he’d just moved to New Orleans from Indianapolis, where he’d been sequestered for past indiscretions. He was upbeat after just getting hitched to longtime girlfriend and vocalist Kaitlin Dibble, but the music he was producing was still loaded with dark and gritty images of life on the street intermingled with heavy occult overtones.
Fear not though. He’s in a far happier place today despite the chaos that’s swirling around us and keeping us all trapped in a painfully troubled loop akin to Groundhog Day.
“If you ask my wife,” Jason says, “there have been setbacks! I’ve put together some long periods of sobriety in the past 20 years, but they have not been continuous. Twelve years one time, and four years another. Since then, there hasn’t been one consistent year in which I hadn’t relapsed in a selfish way. I gained some knowledge each time I screwed up.
“Those screw-ups were costly to people around me — not only my wife, but also my booking agent, Tina Terry, clubs, band members and fans that didn’t get to see shows because I didn’t show up.
“But where I sit right now…aside from the whole Covid-19 and the end of my music as we know it for 2020…it’s been secondary to my sobriety, which is a beautiful, beautiful thing…the idea that I’m not getting sober to have a good job or to do a good job. I’m sober now because I really want to be. It’s coming up on a year now, and I feel great.”
It hasn’t always been that way.
“The first time I got sober in the late ‘90s,” he recalls, “I did it because I didn’t want smoking crack to impede my music career. I couldn’t simultaneously do those two things. I stayed sober for 12 years.
“And then, in 2010, I decided that the music didn’t matter, that I’d rather smoke crack and feel good than continue on with what I felt was a charade of living the American dream – owning a house, having a nice car and a boyfriend.
“I started doing drugs again. And, for me, sitting around, drinking pina coladas, smoking pot and snorting coke…all that was recreational. When I really used drugs, I locked myself in a room, did heroin, smoked crack and looked at pornography for seven or eight days without sleeping.
“The second time I got sober… four years later…that was because I didn’t want to die. But I didn’t necessarily want to live, either. Sobriety, for me, has never been dictated by law. If I didn’t have a better reason than that, I was going to jail.”
Fortunately, those episodes are currently in Jason’s rear-view mirror, a place where, hopefully, they’ll remain.
He’s come a long way since his childhood in Portland, Me., where his high-school dropout father co-founded the now-shuttered Elan School, a private boarding facility criticized for using controversial behavior modification techniques as it educated eighth- through 12th-graders.
Born in 1974, Jason was raised by his mother Cheryl after his parents’ divorce and his dad’s subsequent early death. His interest in the blues developed through listening to her record collection.
“My mother wasn’t a big blues fan,” Ricci says, “but she was a product of the ‘60s. She was aware of Janis Joplin, had heard of Albert and B.B. King. She owned Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters records. And when I got into playing harmonica, she took me to see Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton…people like that.”
An early punk-rock enthusiast as a child, Jason was heavily into 7 Seconds, Minutemen and Firehose before moving on to the Dead Kennedys and The Misfits. He joined a punk band as its vocalist at age 14. He switched to harp at his mother’s suggestion to keep his spot in the band after the lead guitarist started singing.
Ricci had already fallen in love with the instrument after discovering the sounds of Big Walter Horton and Carey Bell when they were trading leads on “Trouble in Mind,” the closing number on their sensational, self-titled 1972 Alligator LP. While the song’s now a blues standard, its origin is vaudeville. It was penned by jazz pianist Richard M. Jones and first recorded by Thelma La Vizzo for Paramount Records in 1924.
“That was the song that got me interested in the music, not just the harmonica,” he stresses. “There was a sincerity in it that was probably there in other blues music that I was listening to prior to that, but hadn’t affected me in the past.
“Some of the other blues stuff that I had heard was joke-y…about women and booze, partyin’…this kinda stuff. And that song…when Big Walter says he’s gonna ‘lay his head on some lonely railroad line’…I felt like he was sincere…that at one point in his life, he felt like killing himself. I felt that was real. That made me pay attention.
“In addition, that song has jazzier changes than a lot of blues songs, too, and I think that was like my early manifestation of my love of jazz coming out – even though I didn’t know it.
“I was originally a guitar student,” he says. “Then my mom found out my teacher — Dave Daniels — was also teaching harmonica. I’d recently gotten one, and asked him if we could do one lesson on that for one week, and it just sorta turned into a harmonica teacher-student relationship from then on.”
Daniels’ lessons didn’t venture into tongue-blocking or other complex techniques, but he laid out the basics and opened Ricci’s ears to a whole new world by turning him on to Rick Estrin, Kim Wilson, Mark Hummel, Sugar Blue and Howard Levy. Other influences included Portland favorite DW Gill, Paul Butterfield, Adam Gussow, Little Walter and Pat Ramsey.
For a while, Jason considered switching to saxophone because of the broader pallet of notes it offered. But those thoughts evaporated after discovering the breakthroughs achieved by Levy, who’s credited with single handedly revolutionizing the instrument because of his advanced overblow technique – something than enables players to approach the musical landscape of the sax.
Although most music lovers don’t realize its significance, Portland has produced several world-class performers, including ‘50s folk star Will Holt, singer/songwriter Jonathan Edwards and the pop/punk band The Leftovers as well as two of Jason’s childhood friends: Per Hanson, the longtime drummer in Ronnie Earl’s Broadcasters, and jump-blues guitarist Nick Curran.
By the time Jason was 16 or so, his mother allowed him to take the car and drive two hours south to Boston to see an older, college girl he was dating and to catch punk bands in action. By age 21, he was living in Memphis. He recorded his first album a short while after winning top honors at a harmonica contest sponsored by Sonny Boy Blues Society – the folks who run the King Biscuit Blues Festival – in Helena, Ark.
He took up residence in Potts Camp, Miss., living with bandmate David Malone Kimbrough, eldest son of Hill Country legend Junior. That relationship led to gigging with both Kimbroughs and R.L. Burnside at Burnside’s juke in Holly Springs. Payment often came in the form of corn whiskey and pot, and Ricci says now that he spent the time living like a tourist in a foreign land.
He subsequently moved to Jackson and joined K.C. Phillips & the Hounds. But that gig was six-months on, six-months off because they had another harp player, Greg “Fingers” Taylor, who held the chair when he wasn’t touring in his other gig as a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band.
A serious brush with the law sidelined Ricci for a year in jail, and he eventually returned home to Portland, where he bonded with another young artist, childhood friend Nick Curran, who was also destined for blues stardom.
“K.C. decided he didn’t want to play music any more, and I had no place to go,” Jason remembers. So I went home to Maine to regroup. I had a couple of regular jobs…dry cleaning and working in a department store. And I met Nicky when he was 14 or 15.
“We really connected and started doing gigs together. He’d hire me, and I’d hire him. We’d go to jams together and take little trips to Boston to check out musicians there as well. Back then, Ronnie Earl was a huge force – and a major influence on the Maine scene, too – along with Duke Robillard, Jerry Portnoy and others.
“It was difficult, though, because Nick was so young. His parents were skeptical about him getting in the vehicle with me when he was not yet of age. Fortunately, his father, Mike, was in a band called The Upsetters, a really great band of multi-instrumentalists who could play anything. They were and institution in barroom blues in Maine. Because of that, I think, Nick’s mom gave him a little more leeway than a normal mother would have.”
A jump-blues and rock singer/guitarist who grew up in Biddeford, a few miles south of Portland, Curran drew major comparisons to T-Bone Walker and Little Richard as well as Doug Sahm and The Ramones as an adult.
Three years younger than Ricci, he started as a drummer and then progressed to six-string and harp. A lover of the sound of old 45s and 78s, he recorded all of his CDs on vintage analog equipment, and his music was featured in the soundtrack of HBO’s True Blood and played regularly on Little Steven’s Underground Garage.
One of the most tragic young artists in recent times, Curran was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2009 and subsequently “cured,” but he succumbed to the disease at age 35 in 2012. And Jason still feels his loss dearly today.
“What makes it so hard,” he says, “was that Nicky was so unbelievably, ridiculously, almost freakishly talented that there’s no saying where his career would have gone. But certainly, he was experiencing a momentum that would have catapulted him at least into the highest realm of blues musicians – if not, stardom!”
Curran is one of three extremely close, lost friends for whom Ricci still grieves. Pat Ramsey and Sean Costello are the others.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t experience a sense of loss for all three of those individuals,” Jason says. “I wasn’t as close to Nick (at his passing) as I was before he moved away from Maine. We hooked up whenever we could and talked a couple of times a year. I talked to Sean more than Nick, particularly in the months leading up to his death, including the day before – or the day — he died. But Pat…I was in contact with him constantly my whole life.”
A native of Shreveport, La., Ramsey’s best known for his work on Johnny Winter’s White, Hot and Blue album as well as spending time with the Allman Brothers. He fought a valiant battle against hepatitis C, but left us in 2008 at age 55. He’s honored annually with the Pat Ramsey Big Bend Hospice Benefit Festival, an event that takes place at Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, Fla.
Jason credits Pat with instilling in him the rapid-fire pentatonic attack he uses on the reeds – something that Ramsey was known for. More important in Ricci’s eyes, however, was that he was both a close friend and a sounding board.
“He was more of a mentor, not a teacher,” Ricci notes. “He wasn’t very much about sitting me down and showing me anything. But I hung out with him as much as I possibly could. When we talked about stuff, it was mostly sobriety.
“When Pat passed, it was hard…because he was somebody that I looked up to and could talk to. Unlike Nicky, he had lived what was a fairly complete life. And, if we’re being honest, it was a relapse on drugs and alcohol that led to the complications that ultimately led to his severe liver damage.
“If we’re also being honest, the medication that existed then – Interferon (which had long-term side-effects) — was not sufficient to treat hepatitis C for everybody. There were a lot of musicians that we lost to hepatitis back then.
“But what was particularly tragic about Pat’s death was that soon after that, they came up with a cure – which, by the way, I’ve taken and am now cured.”
For that reason, he admits, he still has “a little bit of survivor’s guilt.”
That’s also true in the case of Costello, too.
Born in Philadelphia, but raised in Atlanta, Sean was known for his fiery guitar style, and released eight stellar CDs before passing at age 28 in 2008, a victim of an accidental overdose of drugs he was prescribed to control a bipolar disorder. Blues Blast honors his memory every awards season. The rising star prize is named in his honor.
“When Sean died, it was hard for different reasons,” Ricci insists. “I had survivor’s guilt from that, too…because how much dope and crack have I smoked and shot – and not died? I can say with a fair degree of certainty: a lot more than Sean Costello did. So why did that happen?”
Ricci experienced what he terms as an “existential crisis” after Costello’s passing, noting that the true nature was a sense of extreme loss of “such an incredible musician and such a sincere vocalist, songwriter and musician. He was one of the greatest artists.
“When I listen to Nick Curran or Sean Costello,” Jason says, “I don’t see them as contemporaries even though we were about the same age. I don’t see them as colleagues. I cannot by any stretch of the imagination put myself in a category that’s even similar to these people.
“Sure, we were working the same clubs and booking with the same agents, labels and things like that. But all three of these people were so advanced and so complete in their musical and artistic visions that I couldn’t possibly compare myself to any of them.”
One thing that infuriates him is that all of them died before reaching the acclaim that they truly deserved – something they also never achieved after their passing.
“These motherfuckers were in-credible!” Ricci says. “They didn’t benefit from the cliché of ‘when you die, you get famous.’ That didn’t happen at all.”
Instead, their greatness has faded with the passage of time, leaving them overlooked talents who’ll hopefully be “rediscovered” sometime down the road.
With his own history and that of his friends, it’s no wonder that Jason’s an outspoken advocate for causes that help others dealing with mental health and addiction issues in addition to work in support of the LGBT community.
A musical wanderer, this is the third time Ricci’s called New Orleans home, beginning with a 15-month run as a member of Big Al & the Heavyweights in the ‘90s. Other stops in his journey have included Raleigh, N.C., and Delray Beach, Fla., where, for three years, he was a member of the Nucklebusters while in rehab and subsequent recovery (a band co-founded by this author).
He’s always surrounded himself with top-flight musicians, he formed Jason Ricci & New Breed in 2002. The band released six CDs before disbanding, earning three nominations by Blues Wax magazine as its band of the year. The lineup included Shawn Starski, who was named by Guitar Player magazine as one of the ten hottest new fret masters in the industry during the band’s run.
Jason returned to the Big Easy in 2009 and took home harp player of the year honors in the 2010 Blues Music Awards. He joined the band John Lisi & Delta Funk, a unit that evolved into Ricci’s current organization, The Bad Kind. But all wasn’t sugar and light.
After being picked up on a decade-old warrant for assault on a police officer, Jason was sidelined for three years in Indiana, where he supported himself by giving harp lessons via Skype and serving as a booking agent, bringing several of his favorite bands to Indianapolis. He’s been back on the street ever since, and although he admits that his life still has its hiccups, it’s gotten better with each passing year.
His life changed dramatically in 2015. Not only did he contribute harp to Johnny Winter’s Grammy-winning Step Back album, but he was also chosen as a featured artist alongside the Paul Shaffer Band to honor Paul Butterfield during his induction ceremony at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction.
“Johnny contacted me at my lowest point,” Ricci admits. “I had just gotten out of jail and was serving a suspended sentence/probation that could have put me behind bars for 12 years.”
2017 was another year of note. Not only did he exchange vows with wife Kaitlin, a talented vocalist in her own right, but also because the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica (SPAH) presented him with its Bernie Bray trophy for international harp player of the year.
He and The Bad Kind also released Approved by Snakes – a CD with dark themes and heavy occult overtones — on the EllerSoul imprint, which earned him a statuette for rock-blues album at the BMAs a year later.
Most of the material on that one, he says, was written either when he was either looking back at the throes of addiction or incarcerated, adding: “I had to perform those songs for a couple of years to promote the record, and reliving that material every night was very taxing.”
Because of his inventiveness and vision, Ricci frequently stretches the boundaries of the blues, but he maintains a healthy respect and admiration for the founders even his material doesn’t necessarily reflect it.
“Over the years, there’s been a few recordings…at least…where I’ve stepped over that line,” he admits. “I do love blues music and I can play in the traditional language of my instrument that comes from Little Walter, Cotton and Junior Wells and George Smith, etc. But there were times when I was making music – like on Rocket Number 9 (his 2007 debut CD for Eclecto Groove)…songs like ‘The Rocker’ or ‘Loving Eyes’ – where I simply did not care if that element really wasn’t there.
“As I get older, though, I’m lapsing much more into sort of a stable, more traditional language that includes that stuff. It’s not that I’m any less rebellious. It’s just that that formula is much more familiar to me and it’s easier for me to operate out of.
“And by ‘formula,’ I mean a certain concept of certain scales, certain notes and certain chord changes. I find the language of traditional blues music to be more valuable to me…not just a stepping stone, not something I’m just emulating. It’s become a part of how I express myself.
“As I’ve slowed down a little bit, I’ve come to realize how much I love this music. When I listen to guys like Little Charlie (now Rick Estrin) & the Nightcats or Nick Moss, there’s a reverence for them because there are fewer people now doing that (playing traditionally) than ever before. When I was coming up, it was the opposite.
“The rebellious nature in me as a youth had me saying: ‘Fuck that! I’m going to play something different.’ Now that the circuit’s become more instilled with people who don’t know that language, the rebellious nature in me to go back to that suddenly comes out.
“I’m the kind of person who’s constantly at odds with what’s currently happening – much to the detriment of my own serenity (laughs)…and success.”
Jason’s most recent release, My Chops Are Rolling!! – issued on EllerSoul in 2019 – is the “first record I’ve ever done that every song isn’t about the devil and drugs,” Jason says. “It’s a lot happier than anything I’ve ever recorded.
“After Snakes, the natural urge to start writing music that was on the happier side was for two reasons: I was tired of talking about dope and prostitution, the devil and things like that. And there was also the fact that I was living better. I was writing about what I was experiencing at the time…a degree of peace, humor and fun. It’s remarkably lighthearted.”
His favorite track is a cover of the Barbara Lynn song, “If You Should Leave Me,” a track that features wife Kaitlin on vocals. The only downer in the set is a reprise of “The Way I Hurt Myself,” a tune he’d recorded years earlier, in a collection that includes confection-laced “Going to California,” “Snow Flakes and Horses” and “Don’t Badger the Witness,” which he describes as “a humorous take on post-modernism and the idea that you’re no longer allowed to be negative.
“There’s a name for it now that therapists are using,” he notes. “It came out after the song was written: ‘Toxic positivity!’ The song’s poking fun at it, asking the listener to listen to their friends and instead of saying ‘well, you need to do yoga or change your attitude’ to just identify with that person for a moment and say: ‘You know, that sucks!’”
A hardcore football fan, Ricci delivers some not-so-subtle rage on the disc, too, in the form of “F_uck the Falcons (Who Dat Nation),” a profane diatribe about the bad calls that robbed his favorite team, the Saints, of a spot in the Super Bowl. While that version will never receive radio airplay, the PC take that ends the album maintains the outrage but is politically correct for fans both young and old.
“That song goes over particularly well in New Orleans,” he chuckles, “but we also have a good time playing it in Atlanta, too.”
Jason currently has two distinctly different new releases in the planning stage. The first will be a partnership with Joe Krown — the longtime keyboard player in Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s band—guitarist John Fohl – who spent more than a decade with Dr. John – and percussionist Doug Belote — who’s worked with Samantha Fish, Bobby Rush and Jerry Douglas – with additional horns.
“It’ll be New Orleans jazz-funk,” Ricci says. “It’ll be me doing my best to be groovy and jazzy on the harp, playing it a la Stanley Turrentine on the saxophone, and we’ll be covering some Grant Green, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith and The Crusaders.”
The lineup’s been working together occasionally in the Big Easy, and there’s no timetable to produce it, he adds, noting: “If everyone survives and it takes three years to make, it’ll be that much better because we’ll have played longer together. But I am in a sort of a rush right now to make a blues album where I’d play nothing but traditional songs and play them as traditionally as possible.”
The dream lineup for this one will include a rhythm section composed of Nick Moss’ Brazilian-born bassist Rodrigo Mantovani and either Mark Hummel drummer Wes Starr or The Nighthawks’ Mark Stutso in addition to his regular band, too.
“The Band Kind is a wonderful band that’s capable of playing lots of different kinds of music,” Jason insists, “and, above all, they’re fun, cool and unpretentious. They play music in New Orleans by connecting with audiences composed mostly of tourists. So there’s a high degree of social relaxation that comes out in watching that band play.
“However, with that,” he admits, “sometimes I’m not completely happy with the way my band approaches certain pieces of music. There are some pieces where I’d like them to approach with a fair degree of judgment and pretense…some reverence. But when it comes to traditional blues, they didn’t spend 14 years listening to just Little Walter.
“That’s probably a good thing, right. That’s why they’re hired and in my band. Make no mistake, they’re all capable of playing a fair degree of traditional blues in the spirit that the music calls for. But there are certain songs where I recognize that there are other people out there who have done nothing but dedicate their lives to playing that type of music. So why wouldn’t I want to pick and work with them because they’ll bring out the best in me?”
One of the foremost harmonica instructors in the world in addition to his career as a performer, Ricci has posted dozens of in-depth instruction videos on both YouTube and his own website. He’s a co-founder along with former SPAH president of Winslow Yerxa of Harmonica Collective, which hosts an annual conference and conducts online instruction for players.
And he continues to spend a great deal of time teaching harp via one-on-one lessons over Skype, taking on students of all skill levels with the sole proviso that they’re willing to invest the time needed to practice and work to succeed.
On an island of relative peace with troubles of the world swirling around him, Jason remains humble and grateful for all of the support that he and his band have received from fans since they’ve been off the road.
“I’d like to give a huge shout-out to everybody who’ve made contributions to our live streams,” he says, “and another to my Patreon supporters, who are donating money on a monthly basis in exchange for videos that I put up on YouTube for free, something they don’t have to do. They’re making a big difference in my wife and I surviving during the pandemic.
“And I’d like to thank the Lone Wolf Blues Co., which produces pedals and my signature mike for harmonica, and Blue Moon Harmonicas, which has not only been contributing instruments for me to play, but also been allowing me a fair degree of income through endorsing their products.
“Without the fans, my students and these companies, I would not be in this good of a mood right now. If I don’t do that publicly, folks won’t know how hard it is for artists like me to make ends meet during all this.”