Jeff Richman Interview
Jeff Richman has been a fixture on the west coast jazz scene for some 20 years. In addition to his highly-regarded solo recordings, the LA-based guitarist has an extensive list of session and sideman credits, which includes work with artists such as Ernie Watts, T Lavitz, Mark Isham, Robbie Krieger, M’shell Ndegeocello, and many others. Richman is also an educator who has taught at both Musician’s Institute and the LA Music Academy, and has produced an impressive array of side projects, including a critically-acclaimed collection of tribute albums for the Tone Center label, in which he rounded-up some of the top guitarists in the business to pay homage to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Steely Dan, and other musical legends. If you’re in LA for any length of time, you’ll likely be able to catch Richman performing at the legendary Baked Potato jazz club; a venue he’s been playing for years. In fact, when the club held it’s two-day 40th Anniversary Jazz Festival this past May, who was the first performer on day one? Jeff Richman and the Baked Potato Allstars.
Richman recently released his 16th solo album, Like That (Nefer Music Records) – a fine collection of original tunes that span the gamut from rocking fusion to near straight-ahead jazz, all the while retaining his distinctive sound. For this new disc, Richman enlisted a who’s-who of his fellow jazz and fusion heavyweights to back him up including Vinnie Colaiuta, Mitch Forman, Will Kennedy, Alex Acuna, and many others. Richman took time out from his busy schedule to discuss the new album, his writing, his gear, and other topics.
Abstract Logix: I’ve always thought of you as one of the top “west coast jazz” players, but you were originally from the east coast, correct?
Jeff Richman: Well, both actually . . . I lived in Los Angeles as a kid and was heavily influenced by all the great music that was going on at the time like the Beatles, Stones, the Yardbirds……everybody! A few years later my family moved to Hawaii! Luckily, I got to see an amazing amount of incredible live concerts over there like Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix just to name a few. When I was 21, I moved to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music, then moved to New York City for three years right afterwards before returning to LA. So in a way, I am a mixture of all of that!!
AL: How has the west coast scene changed over the years since you first moved out there?
JR: I’ve been here in LA for over 20 years now and it seems like the scene ebbs and flows – more or less. Sometimes things seem to be really happening, new venues and cool clubs to play open up and its really great. Then it can turn south, things change, clubs close down and you just have to wait for the next wave to come. Even through those ups and downs, one thing is for sure – there are so many great musicians out here that it just never gets boring!
AL: Your new record, Like That, definitely has that modern, west coast sound. How long did you spend writing and recording the album?
JR: It took me about a year to work out all the tunes. With all my albums, I go through a pretty long process of writing and re- writing the music until it feels right to me. Once I was ready to record, it became all about organizing everything, which was a task in and of itself. The actual recording took about three months from start to finish.
AL: You utilize 3 distinctive lineups of killer players on the disc – 4 songs feature Will Kennedy on drums, Dean Taba on bass, and Deron Johnson on Fender Rhodes; 4 others have Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Neil Stubenhaus on bass, and Mitch Forman on keys; and 2 feature Steve Hass on drums, Stubenhaus on bass, and Larry Goldings on organ. You also have Alex Acuna on percussion for nearly every track. How did you decide which band to use for a given song?
JR: For me, it all starts with the drums. Vinnie Colaiuta played on my very first album Himalaya, released in 1986. Since then, he’s appeared on several of my projects. He’s a genius at understanding complex music and turning it into something better than you ever could have imagined, so I absolutely wanted him on Like That. Although Vinnie would have been great on every single one of these tunes, I really “heard” his sound on these four (In Spirited, Awful Pretty, Rock Tall, Touch and Go) in particular. I teamed him up with my long time friends and amazing players in their own right, Neil Stubenhaus and Mitchel Forman. They really understand my tunes and compliment Vinnie perfectly.
William Kennedy has such amazing spirit and a soulful groove. I knew that he would really take charge, groove hard and add his distinct personality to my songs (Like That, Small Kid Time, The Endless Inbetween, Truffaz). Dean Taba and I have played together for almost 20 years – he’s always a perfect ingredient because he can do anything! Deron Johnson is one of my all-time favorite keyboard players. I knew that this band would blend perfectly.
In Flux and Tsuyako feature Larry Goldings, Steve Hass and Neil. I composed these two songs with a jazzy, open approach utilizing the organ. Even though I put a lot of thought and deliberation in composing and in choosing the players, I really believe that being spontaneous along the way is an important part of the creative process. For instance, I decided to add percussionist Alex Acuna at the last minute. It was a good move – he added depth and color to the music.
AL: You already have a familiarity with all of these players from previous sessions and gigs, but when it comes to bringing them in the studio to record your stuff, how much direction do you give them? Do you do go over parts ahead of time and tell them “This is what I’m looking for here?” Or do you just throw up your charts and let them do their thing.
JR: Collaboration with the band is so important to me. It’s always a give and take when in these situations. I trust and encourage the musicians to be themselves and to “go for it” using their instincts. I’ve always believed that playing music is a communal effort and I want that to be a part of all my projects.
AL: I wanted to ask you about your writing process a bit. For a piece like “Awful Pretty” from the new album – which has some sections where the harmony is pretty dense – do you write the chords first, the melodies first, or do you hear it all at once?
JR: Each song has a different story. Most of the time, I experience an “inspirational moment” where a distinct chord change, melodic idea, or bass riff will come to me. Sometimes there are two or three ideas floating around in my mind, and I try to see if I can put them together somehow. Then comes the process of filling everything in, balancing and honing in on a form, slowly shaping it into a composition. In “Awful Pretty” I believe I came up with those dense chords first and later filled them in with the melody. I do want to say that I “heard” the melody to be somewhat busy like that before I actually came up with the exact notes. So I had it visualized before it was committed to the paper!
AL: What about for heavier tunes like “Rock Tall” or “Touch And Go?” Do you come up with the riff first then start building from there?
JR: “Rock Tall” is a tribute to my guitar hero Jeff Beck. I just started messing around with a “rockin” bass riff with an odd time feel. I ended up with a four bar phrase: three bars of 4/4 and one bar of 3/4. The interesting detail is that the bass comes in on beat 2 of the first bar which makes it kind of an odd phrase. I wrote a simple melody over it that could be played with harmonics. It has a bit of a tricky phrasing. The bridge has two short sections to it – one is “Mahavishnu- esque”, and the other one has touches of the “Yardbirds”. On the solo, I wanted to create an element of surprise, so there is an unexpected chord change.
“Touch And Go” has an almost comical element with a country riff, it then surprisingly ventures into a completely new feel, a rocking fusion shuffle with a dense melody. the solo section is fun because it goes back and forth from shuffle and a straight eighth feel.
AL: As an improviser, you’ve obviously built up a deep jazz vocabulary over the years. Is improvisation something you still practice though?
JR: Absolutely! I practice improvising all the time. I use various programs on my computer and play along to jazz standards, chord vamps, fusion tunes and even my original stuff. I practice lots of things without any accompaniment. I also enjoy improvising with my students and peers.
AL: Let’s talk about some of the gear you used on the new record. You mention in the liner notes that you played a Fender Relic Strat and Tele, among other guitars. What can you tell me about those Fenders?
JR: I have two Stratocaster Relics and one Telecaster Relic, they are absolutely incredible. They feel amazing, sound amazing and they look pretty cool too. I first got the Tele over a year ago. After realizing what an amazing instrument it was, I just had to “upgrade” my existing Strat to match the Tele. The first Strat has an ebony neck, the other one a maple neck, so I have the best of both worlds!
AL: Which vintage years are the Relics modeled after?
JR: My green ebony neck Relic is modeled after a 1963 Strat, and brown maple neck is modeled after a ’57 Strat!
AL: You also played the Jim Hall and Semi-Hollow model Sadowskys. Are you using those on the more straight-ahead sounding tunes like “Tsuyako” and “Truffaz?”
JR: Yes. I played my Jim Hall Sadowsky guitar on Truffaz and Tsuyako to get that warm, rich and dark jazz sound, I used this same guitar on most of my last album Aqua. I played my semi-hollow Sadowski on “In Flux” and “Small Kid Time”. The guitar is super easy to play and I can get the Scofield kind of sound, jazzy yet with a bit of distortion…really works. They are both truly wonderful instruments.
AL: What amps and effects did you use on the album?
JR: I used a Marshall Silver Jubilee combo amp, the one with two 12” speakers. For effects on Like That I used a number of pedals including a couple of Exotic boost pedals, an XTS distortion pedal, delays and reverb. I also used a Royer microphone.
AL: When you play live, do you use a different setup than you do in the studio?
JR: I use the Marshall along with an old Fender Deluxe or Super Reverb when I play live. I have lots of various pedals that I like to play around with to get different textures as well. The pedals I’ve already mentioned, plus Octiver, Moogerfooger, Envelope Filter and some others.
AL: Speaking of live playing, I wanted to ask you about “The Baked Potato Allstars.” For readers that may not be aware, this is essentially a pick-up band where you bring in different top shelf jazz and studio guys to jam at the Baked Potato in Hollywood. You’ve been doing it for years now. How did that residency start, and what it is about the Baked Potato that makes it such a special place to play?
JR: I have been playing at the Potato for 20 years now. The acoustics are really great and it’s a club where people come to really listen to the music. Lastly, Justin Randi is a true fusion fanatic, so it feels great to be in an atmosphere where my music is welcome!
AL: Other than your BP Allstars gigs, do you have any other shows or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
JR: We’re working on plans to tour Japan and Europe. South America is also a possibility. Earlier this year I did a short tour to India and Scandinavia with Russel Ferrante, William Kennedy and Jimmy Haslip. Everyone had such a great time, we’re looking to do it again next year.
AL: Thanks for your time Jeff!