“He’s an articulate, facile player with a genre-crossing style, and his solos at the Vic — like his arrangements — roved in search of new perspectives on familiar material. And he was at his best when he served as musical facilitator, setting the patterns and opening the way for his talented associates.” –Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2006
L.A.-based guitarist Jeff Richman can take a few lines and turn them into monster masterpieces of jazz/rock fusion and art. Even more amazing, you’re humming his melodies (this is jazz, now) in the shower or hit with several of his tunes blazing like a movie soundtrack as you ascend that hill on a Sunday hiking expedition, suddenly at one with God.
An underrated, hard-workin’/hard-rockin’ multi-talent, Richman has produced a new niche of genres in tribute albums to jazz-rock greats – Steely Dan, hero Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, provided TV | movie soundtracks for real – That Thing You Do, Pass The Ammo, America’s Funniest Home Videos, Neverending Story, Ladykiller, Tracey Ullman Show, and made himself a household name with his own slew of solo albums, most recently, the critically well-received, “Like That.”
“Like That’s” latest CD effort is believed to be Richman’s best, a blend of his rock and jazz roots, equal parts vision, composition, improvisation, and follow-through, as well as a vibrant, infectious reflection of the humble, kind, and immensely gifted man himself.
There’s not much written about you online. Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I started to get turned onto music when I was around 11 years old. Living in L.A., there was always something going on musically. I listened to music on the radio, watched bands on TV, and went to plenty of movies listening to a full variety of pop, rock and R&B. I first heard Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds when I was around 13. Beck completely floored me, and was probably the first and most influential guitar player in my life. My family then moved to Hawaii when I was around 15 and I was super-lucky to see some incredible concerts there. I saw Jimmy Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith, Jethro Tull, to name a few. I then decided to get serious and go to the only school that had a contemporary music program, Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was truly a great place to study, I got heavily into jazz, reading and harmony. I met many fellow musicians who I still keep in touch with and I also saw an amazing amount of noteworthy performances, the likes of Miles Davis, Weather Report, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and many more. After Berklee, I moved to NYC for three years and then out L.A., where I have been for quite a while.
What made you pick up the guitar, as opposed to any other instrument?
I guess my mother had an influence on me, she sang and taught folk guitar. I actually started playing at age 11 in summer camp, when a friend and I learned a bunch of “surf” music ala the Ventures.
Right off the bat, I noticed you’re from Hawaii and have worked with Hawaii bassist Dean Taba many times. How’d you end up in paradise, and how has it influenced your musicianship?
I actually met Dean Taba in L.A. in the 80s. We have been playing ever since now and have an incredible rapport. Truthfully, he is just an amazing musician and it has nothing to do with Hawaii, except that he decided to move there. I guess my influence from the islands is the extreme beauty, and of course the waves!
Love the stuff on 2008’s “Aqua,” definitely an homage to growing up in Hawaii, surrounded by the Pacific ocean. I hear this CD was something you wanted to do of your own, after having done six tribute albums in a row of other bands. How did “Aqua” come about?
Exactly! I produced six tribute CDs, which, of course, was a rewarding and learning experience. I was so fortunate to meet and work with so many incredible guitarists. However, even though I was featured on each album and had creative control on the arrangements, I wanted to be the only guitar player and to be playing on my compositions.
You’re known for your tribute albums. In particular, tackling artists who are revered for their one-of-a-kind, extremely complex and hard-to-duplicate styles, like Steely Dan. What’s your technique in approaching their work… do you dismantle everything and start from scratch, or go off in directions based on a note or a refrain you hear that might work better in another genre (for example, turning “Dirty Work” into a full-on Cuban samba)?
It was a bizarre and unique process. Each arrangement sort of emerged after a long, hard period of brainstorming. It was sort of like using building blocks, or putting a puzzle together. First of all, a proper selection of tunes was imperative. I listened to everything from every tribute group (Steely Dan, Mahavishnu, etc.). I then started making lists of which songs could be arranged better than others. Eventually I would choose 10 songs, this is where the work really began. My idea was to elaborate on something that was already a part of the song, either a chord progression, rhythmic groove or even a concept. One example of this, on the Steely Dan song “Aja,” it ends with an amazing signature Steve Gadd drum solo. My idea was to start where they left off and begin the song with an even more elaborate drum solo by Vinnie Colaiuta. Like this song, each song has a story.
In Phil DiPietro’s All About Jazz interview with you (Oct. 10, 2005), you question whether you’ve arrived yet, comparing yourself kind of unfavorably to others, people you feel are bigger names that carry more weight with jazz publications, the powers that be who can make cross-country tours happen, the John Scofields. Do you still feel that way, like you haven’t made it yet?
Well, I have not been able to really get an official road tour under my name. I would love to do a European, Japan, or USA tour playing my music.
You also mentioned your influences growing up in that interview and having attended the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston. What made you go in that direction? What did you hope to gain from going to the school?
You have to realize that Berklee was the only school to go to in order to learn contemporary music. I wanted to learn more about jazz. I got bitten by the jazz bug and there was really nowhere else to go to study it thoroughly.
Once in Berklee, you fell in love with jazz, with some big jazz names there (Mike Stern, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell). What was that like, not only to learn so much from these guys but to expand your rock leanings into jazz? Was that an easy transition?
At Berklee, I pretty much focused only on jazz, learning standards and how to play that kind of music. I was indeed lucky to have Stern and Frisell as classmates. We played all the time and I really grew from these experiences. I had Pat Metheny and Mick Goodrick as private teachers, who could ask for anything more? After I left Berklee, I slowly started incorporating my rock influence that I grew listening to with what I experienced at Berklee.
Why do you love jazz so much, why did it make such an impact in your life?
Jazz is an acquired taste. It is very complex with so much variety. It really takes time and patience to appreciate this unique music. I particularly love the melodies and harmonies that have come out of the jazz “standard” repertoire.
What’s your favorite type of jazz to compose and perform? What about it appeals to you?
I guess the only type of jazz I’ve composed is basically my style of music. It is mixture of rock, R&B, a bit of Latin grooves with harmonic movement and rhythmic variation.
What did you want to do with your music once you were out of Berklee?
When I got out of Berklee, I was mediocre at best as a guitarist. All I wanted to do was move to New York City and play with whomever I could. I moved there and did exactly that for a couple of years, it was the greatest experience!
What are the best types of gigs to play and why?
Well, of the great gigs I’ve done recently is a one-week tour in Scandinavia along with Yellowjackets founders Jimmy Haslip and Russell Ferrante. It was put together by a great Danish drummer named Henrik Enqvist. It was amazing to play for people who were super-enthusiastic about the music which was mostly mine. It was especially rewarding, because I was fortunate to play with such high-level musicians.
What kind of a musician do you think you are? What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
I am an American musician influenced by variety in the music around me growing up. My weakness would probably be my level of technique on the guitar. I always wish I had the ability to play super-fast shredding runs. My strength is, I believe, my writing skills. It seems that I do have a personal, individual approach to writing music.
There is more to you than tribute albums, solos and chasing those elusive gigs. You’re a teacher, you’ve done tons of television and movie music, you’ve worked with so many famous stars, from Cliff Richard to Manhattan Transfer. What’s your favorite thing to do, what does it do for you?
My favorite thing is the long process from the inception of a song to finally being able to “capture” and document it properly in a recording. It is particularly rewarding when the recording has some pleasant, unexpected surprises that have occurred spontaneously!
Is there something people would be surprised to know about you? What have you been up to now?
I am extremely happy to announce the release of a brand new CD called “Like That,” which I am very proud of. There are 10 new original compositions, great playing from all the wonderful musicians. My guitar playing is stronger than ever!