Hot Rod

Rod Piazza isn't your average blues harmonica player.

Piazza did just that by continually updating his techniques, coining new licks and adopting what he calls a "play it like a man" approach. "That's a matter of really grabbing ahold of it and being aggressive and having the power and ability to do it, but knowing when to back off," he explains. "This buddy of mine says the sound I make is smooth, but then it can get really rusty and rough, like the edge of an old tin can. That's what I'm doing. When it's rough, I get it as rough as it can get, but when it's smooth, it's as smooth as can be. When you combine the two, then you've really got something going."

The Flyers' sense of dynamics puts the lie to perceptions that West Coast blues music is a slicker facsimile of its Eastern predecessors. "That's something that I've kept in mind," Piazza says. "I don't want it to be labeled lighthearted or not having any guts to it. So I purposefully make sure it has that rough side to it as well. It's just a little different; it's a little more uptown. The drum beat is a little freer, and there's no backbeat in a lot of this stuff--it's more of a swinging type of drum sound, and that allows us to vamp off it a little easier. It's not that different from what Little Walter was trying to do when he was making all the instrumentals with Fred Below on drums and trying to play like Gene Ammons. It's really the same kind of thing that came out of Chicago--the Eddie Vinson, T-Bone Walker and Joe Turner stuff."

That's not to say that Piazza and his Flyers specialize in re-creating bygone music. Their sound may be steeped in the past, but it's not overwhelmed by it. According to Piazza, "We're traditionalists, but we create new stuff with those traditions. We don't just rehash it or interpret somebody else's stuff. Most of what we play live is our own stuff, and when we record, it's 95 percent. You've got to have that reverence for the past but also keep what you do fresh. In that context, you've got to be creative with it, and that's the hardest thing and the biggest challenge to this stuff. It's like when you go hear somebody and they sound great, but they're doing stuff you've already heard. It sounds great, but you're like, 'Okay, that's pretty good. Let's go home.' You know what I mean? It ain't moving you in your soul. And that hurts blues music--it really does--because people hear it and think, 'I don't want no more of that.'"

No such criticism can be directed at Piazza. A letter of thanks he received from Howard Stovall, the head of the W.C. Handy board, is a case in point. "He said, 'Man, you guys' performance was the highlight of the night; all my friends couldn't stop talking about it for two or three days afterwards,'" Piazza reports, adding, "That says a lot about how this music has opened up people's eyes to what the West Coast thing is all about. And it gets better day by day, year by year. We're starting to headline more festivals and sell more records, so things are going good and steadily moving up. And it seems like everyone I see out on the road says, 'Man, I see your name everywhere.'"

As a result of his busy schedule, Piazza will have to wait a while to indulge his surfing jones. In the meantime, he has some advice for those who have trouble picturing him in beach britches instead of sharkskin. "Every time you turn around in this world and think something is one thing, it winds up being something else," he asserts. "And you say, 'Oh, now I see. Now this make sense.' When all along, you just had the wrong idea to begin with."

The Denver Blues Festival, with Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, and the Holmes Brothers. Sunday, June 21, $5-$10, 478-BLUE, 329-6353 or 830-2525.

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