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"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."
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.