Hot Rod

Rod Piazza isn't your average blues harmonica player.

"Maybe you'd better leave out the surfing stuff," bluesman/harmonica expert Rod Piazza says about his love of riding the waves near his Southern California home. "Sometimes it's a hindrance for people to know what you're really all about off stage, because they have this perception of what you're like on stage. It might be best to let them keep on believing that."
Such concern is understandable; after all, the image of a blues musician hanging ten is strange indeed. But Piazza has no reason to sweat charges against his pedigree. He's spent more than two of the more than three decades he's been a professional musician leading his current group, the Mighty Flyers, and during that time, he's jammed with countless legends and been lauded by critics as one of the greatest players to master a Marine Band harmonica. At this year's W.C. Handy awards, the blues world's equivalent to the Grammys, the praise became official. Piazza and the Flyers earned nominations for best band and best album, and the bandleader himself was nominated as male blues artist of the year alongside B.B. King, Buddy Guy and the late Luther Allison. Better yet, he won the crown as best harmonica player.

In other words, Piazza is the real deal--and so is Tough and Tender, his latest album for Rounder Records' Tone-Cool subsidiary. The CD is a dyed-in-indigo treat chock-full of the West Coast blues that Piazza and his crew (pianist, wife and surfing partner Honey Piazza, guitarist Rick Holmstrom, upright bassist Bill Stuve and drummer Steve Mugalian) are helping make famous. From deep-fried fatback shuffles to smoking, upbeat spine-tinglers, the disc brims with gritty heart and soul. And Piazza's playing on it underscores why he won his most recent prize.

The record's first cut, "Power of the Blues," opens with Piazza elaborating on earthquakes, thunder and floods in his Southern Comfort voice, and by the time he takes a solo, it's clear that he is an equally formidable blend of natural forces. At the beginning of the break, he bends an over-driven harp note to its knees before delivering a dizzying combination of percussive punches. During the next 36 bars, he unleashes more of the same, and his muscular-but-never-busy playing leaves plenty of time for riff-seekers to put their jaws back in place. His performance--a flurry of roaring blasts and nimble runs highlighted by a stunning vibrato that would baffle physicians and physicists--is the kind that leads musicians to either move into the woodshed permanently or smash their gear and give up.

When pushed for details on his uncanny techniques, Piazza shares a few details. "You're just pulling from your stomach with the vibrato and letting the reed be the beneficiary of it on the back end," he says about his fluttering phrasing. "And there's a kind of a double thing that I'm doing there, too--something I came up with. I'm doing the vibrato, and then I'm also opening and closing my hands at a different rate of speed and getting another vibrato going at a different tempo. That's what gives you that wild sound."

What about Piazza's rich Tyrannosaurus tone, which makes his standard ten-hole harp sound like the 64-note chromatic model that serves as his main ax? How does he manage that? "Well, if I told you that, I'd have to kill you," he notes with a chuckle. But moments later he divulges some particulars. For one thing, he plays through a custom-made Harp King amplifier that he helped design and employs his own line of modified microphones. Both the amp, which features six ten-inch speakers and a whopping 100 watts of power, and his mics--crystal versions based on past technology--have been modified for maximum bluesability. "They're really opened up like the old mics used to be a long time ago," he reveals. "They get all the sound that the crystal is capable of producing; that really helps in the tone. But the rest of it is just the years of doing the stuff. You've got to get that on your own."

Piazza speaks from experience. He was just a kid when he heard his older brother's blues recordings. Then, a few years later, this same sibling took young Rod to a performance by the late Jimmy Reed, whose gift of one of his own harps would be a prophetic offering. Before he was out of his teens, Piazza was blowing up storms in Southern California clubs and hobnobbing with local blues artists. One of the first he met was George Smith, a former sideman for Muddy Waters who had relocated to California. The two became fast friends, with Smith serving as Piazza's mentor and musical soul brother. The biracial harp duo went on to form Bacon Fat, a group that played the bulk of its early shows in the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts. Piazza's complexion led to an unlikely marketing slogan: "He's white, but he's outasight."

"They didn't have too many white guys playing down there at the time, so that was a semi-ploy to get people in on the novelty," Piazza concedes. "On the other hand, it was an apology--'but he's all right,' that kind of thing. I didn't really think about it at the time, because all the black musicians I played with, they didn't see nothin' but what you played and whether you proved yourself to the audience."

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