A Thought Provoking interview with Rick DellaRatta
DellaRatta is a crafter, not solely of music in the general sense,
but of a specific ambiance. A jazz artist with a distinctive style
augmented by equally distinctive accompanying musicians.
DellaRatta doubles as the vocalist and pianist in a swinging
quartet. He is equally in depth in both roles.
JazzReview.com: Tell me about the earliest experience with
music you remember and maybe some of the things that sparked your
interest in music, Jazz in particular.
DellaRatta: I first became interested in music when a piano
appeared in my house. I think what happened was my father had
bought a piano for my mother because she use to play the piano.
She was actually a church organist. But the guy who was moving the
piano in on Christmas Eve was a big fat guy and I thought he was
Santa Claus. I didn't know what he was moving in either. I was
only 5 or 6 years old. So when that came into the house I started
to go up and sneak and play it. I was fascinated it made sounds, I
listened and tried to figure this instrument out all by myself.
That's when I had an inkling that improvisation was going to be
basically a major part of my existence.
Anyway my parents found out about it and took me to have piano
lessons. And I studied classical music. I heard pop music and rock
music on the radio with my friends. I was polarized and something
told me to go to the library. That there was this other kind of
music and I really needed to hear it. I'm not sure what sparked me
to do this but I ended up going to the library on my own and
looking through a big volume of jazz records. I took these records
out of the library on my own and began listening to them. I would
just pick them randomly. I would look and say hmmmm Ornette
Coleman, this guy looks interesting let me try him, let me try
John Coltrane, try this one, try that one. It just became
fascinating to me. It was really hard for me to follow what they
were doing, yet I knew they were doing something along that was
along the creative energy, the improvisation energy, the
improvisation energy I had when I stood up at the piano just
standing when I reached my hand along top of the keys and made
sound. So, I felt a correlation between what they were doing and
what I was doing, when I was trying to create and figure out the
piano all by myself. So I ended up spending a lot time at the
piano pretending I was practicing my lessons but really
improvising and creating on my own. Fortunately, I did play
classical music enough to get into a music school that had jazz in
Once I got into New England Conservatory I was able to study with
Jaki Byard. He was really my first jazz teacher ( he just passed
away). That wasn't until was in college. I was playing in rock and
roll bands where I was improvising and playing dance bands. I was
also improvising a lot in church. But I really didn't have that
much of a grasp of jazz improvisation concepts. So I was able to
get started with Jaki on the side I was a classical piano major. I
was able to sneak into the jazz department and get a sneak. And it
took off from there.
JazzReview.com: When did you know that you wanted to play jazz
music as a career?
DellaRatta: I knew I had a feeling that music was going to be my
career at a very early age. Because I felt A) a need to create and
improvise an B). I felt a need to reach people through the healing
process of music, So, I saw how the feeling of popular music would
generate in people almost like a healing and uplifting feeling in
pop, gospel and a lot of forms of music. I saw the spirituality of
creative improvisation and I knew that there was some sort of
combination I wanted. At the time I wasn't sure. I studied all
forms of music including classical extensively. Until I got to the
point where I felt I wanted to do something that was not only
satisfying for myself artistically but also could make a
contribution as vocalist and a jazz instrumentalist.
JazzReview.com: Who have been some of your greatest
inspirations and influences? What was it about them that made such
an impression on you?
DellaRatta: Actually it was a counselor when I went to a camp. The
camp counselor's name was Bill Allen, we use to go on hikes
together and he use to turn me on to music. Some of the music he
turned me on to was very creative sort of progressive rock, some
of the music had a lot of classical influence, and then he would
also turn me on to a band called Weather Report that was an off
shoot of Miles Davis' electric group that had Wayne Shorter, Joe
Zawinul and numerous different great players who came and went. In
addition Chick Corea's "Return To Forever" and I noticed those
guys kind of enabled me to go into other forms of jazz. It was
stepping stone to other forms of jazz. it was a indirect influence
into the whole world of jazz.
JazzReview.com: Not many artist play and sing. Does having to
sing while you play the piano make it difficult?
DellaRatta: I honestly never realized it, when I started singing I
was first singing in bands because I had a different type of
voice. The group felt I could make a contribution in terms of the
way I could sing certain songs that would fit that mold. After
that I started to get a lot of work as a solo pianist vocalist and
traveling around the country and in doing so I saw the ability of
my voice to reach people in a different way than the instrumental
side was. When I would come back from those tours and just play
the piano in jazz groups after a while I started to miss the
ability to reach the audiences. I would feel almost caged a little
bit because I knew there was something inside of me that could
reach these people but the other guys didn't really know it. I was
the one who recently got off the tour as a vocalist and they still
knew me as a piano player. I was confined because when I was
toying as a singer I saw the way I could reach people and possibly
draw them into jazz and communicate the jazz more.
As a leader it just became natural for me to become a singer and
instrumentalist. I'll tell you something I didn't realized being a
singer would actually make me a better piano player. One day I was
in a hotel, The Gramercy Park Hotel in NY. I was playing there and
Michel Petrucciani walked into the lounge, well he was the one
that brought it to my attention. He was in the lounge he listened
for awhile then he went out. I guess he was registering in the
hotel, and then he came back into the lounge and stayed for quite
some time. After a couple of sets I said, gee maybe I should say
hello, so I went and said hello to him, and he said, "sit down I
want to talk to you". And we began talking. He began to tell me of
how great it was that a). I knew the lyrics to all the standards I
was singing and b). I was singing and playing, he said, that's so
important in your lyricism and developing your own voice. He
really enlightened me to the fact that it was very likely that my
singing was going to make me a better pianist. That's what ended
up happening I ended up noticing that my singing made me a better
pianist. I think singing has helped me to be in a supportive role
for other singers or instrumentalist.
JazzReview.com: You've toured extensively, What differences
have you noticed between European jazz audiences and American jazz
DellaRatta: Americans take the music for granted it seems a bit
more than European audiences. Most recently in Europe I was in
Bulgaria, and there it was just a fascination with them. It seemed
like they were starved for it. They just couldn't wait to hear the
music, enjoy it, and be a part of it. They really felt like it was
something special. Par of it has to do with the fact that is not
as accessible to them. Here people take it for granted. Over there
especially in a place like Bulgaria they don't know when they'll
get a again. Sometime they may have a couple of festivals a year.
They don't have as many opportunities. I think they cherish the
opportunity to hear jazz more than here where they feel if they
miss it today, they can see it tomorrow. Also because it's not
imported, it's not presented correctly. The way it's presented
over there is much greater a lot of times, here the owners try to
make an extra buck off of the music and try to use it in that
format. It's not really presented whereas over there it's an
import. And so the presentation is a better presentation.
JazzReview.com: What kind of toll does touring non stop take on
DellaRatta: I think there's a certain unknown that's what takes a
lot out of you. Because you don't know what to expect, you're
working with different promoters, different agents, different sets
of circumstances. It's the incredible amounts of uncertainty that
takes the most out of you. But at the same time it makes it
exciting. The unexpected has 2 ramifications 1) it creates a
certain excitement and 2) it zaps a lot of energy because a lot
adapting has to take place. Some situations are the travel that
takes place others are the planes or the variable surrounding it.
The unexpected and the unknown are what takes the most out of you.
JazzReview.com: What's your favorite part of your job
composing, recording, performing or a combination of all three?
DellaRatta: A combination of the three because composing is like
giving birth and performing is watching the birth grow up. They
both have their draw backs and good points. One problem with
performing is the performance situation it can be heaven or hell.
It depends on how you're presented and who you're performing with
and the music you're performing. It's also the magic in the music
when you're performing. all those variables make it extremely
challenging to have an ideal situation every time. Performing
would be the most exciting if the situation was at it's most
optimum but those optimums are unfortunately the exception and not
JazzReview.com: I would like to talk you about 2 of your
releases "Thought Provoking " and "Live In Brazil" I notice on
both releases the track "Living inside a Dream" is on both of
DellaRatta: Very simply you'll find that in live recordings,
because sometimes a song takes off with a certain audience from a
studio recording and naturally you'll want to perform that song
live. That song was actually made into a music video. That song
has a certain amount of appeal to may cultures. People in Asia,
Europe, USA there are people who hear that song in many cultures.
Even in Africa, Although I've never been to Africa I heard there's
an interest in that song.
JazzReview.com: In "Thought Provoking" I really like he release
"Everything I have is Yours"
DellaRatta: It's one of those tunes, The great thing about it is
that it hasn't been recorded a lot. To take a song that people may
not have heard, it's a gem. The gem of a standard.
JazzReview.com: Your rendition on the track "If I only had a
brain" that was exceptionally done.
DellaRatta: Thanks, I enjoyed doing it.
JazzReview.com: The track "Say you'll be mine" That was one of
my favorites, so much so I shared the words with someone very
close to me.
DellaRatta: Thank you so much. My brother was getting married and
I wanted to write something to express his love. I looked at their
relationship and I saw how he felt towards her. I wanted to write
something that he felt for his bride to be. So I wrote that song
and that was their first dance at their wedding. A very different
version of that song will be coming out soon. A Solo Studio
Release called "Alone Together" and that's my next CD. It will
initially be coming out on a web site MCY. It's a new site. It'
starting a CD where you can download the music. And it's launched
in June. The release will be actually coming out in the fall but
coming out exclusively on the music web site mcy.com
JazzReview.com: What prompted you to record the track "When
it's sleepy time down south"?
DellaRatta: It's a song I've always loved by Louis Armstrong, It's
one of his great standards that he sings. I was playing at the
Blue Note. And I had some people come there from the South.
Actually my cousin had come in he's originally from Florida and he
had been in town and he came to see me and there were some people
from the south. And I thought this would be a good song to play. I
had gone to Florida ever since I was a little kid. My mother's
originally from Florida. This feeling for Everglades and even
though I've never been to Louisiana or Mississippi where that song
is about I still have that feeling of the Everglades, that lazy
kind of feeling that you get in the south. I tried to bring that
in my rendition of the song.
JazzReview.com: You've won the 1997 Backstage award, the 1997
and 1998 Mac award nominee, 1998 ascap popular award winner. What
do you see in terms of your future?
DellaRatta: I like to do more in the US. I'd like to help jazz
gain more popularity in the US. in my own country. So I'd like to
use some of my popularity. So I'd like to use some of my notoriety
and things I've built up in other countries, in other places and
if there was anyway possible in terms of helping jazz broaden and
reach more people in this country, maybe bring jazz to the level
here that it exist in so many other countries.
JazzReview.com: Do you have specific goals in mind you want to
share with us?
DellaRatta: One of the greatest thing I'd like to do is perform
when it's at the optimum situation and presented properly, when I
have the opportunity to really express myself as an artist and
when performing with top notch musicians. A goal of mine is to
make those optimum situations that I enjoy so much and I feel I
can reach people with my music. My goal would be to make those
situations the norm instead of the exception. So that would be a
definite goal of mine. I have musical goals that I'm always trying
to achieve and I'd hope to achieve those that are in front of me.
JazzReview.com: In " Live in Brazil" included in your trio was
one of my favorite drummers, The Late Denis Charles. What was it
like working with him?
DellaRatta: It was really in many cases almost heavenly. I had the
opportunity to not only play with someone who was as influential
an artist as Denis but also in touring with him, we got to spend a
lot of time together. Long 9-10 hour plane flights traveling to
different places. I was able to benefit from his experience, his
expertise and his views on life. I feel like I really learned a
lot from him and I felt flattered immensely by the support I got
from him both musically and spiritually. Just to have someone of
that statue so supportive of me and what I was doing. I just felt
JazzReview.com: I've loved music all my life and I've met all
kinds of musicians, jazz musicians stand out to me for a couple of
reasons, They are very soulful people, they're very warm, honest
and hip. Do you notice this as well?
DellaRatta: Yes, I must say the experience of the life of jazz,
it's a rewarding spiritual experience. You are instilled with
something we are all able to pick up on. Often when we meet each
other we can sense a similarity of experience that a life of jazz
has brought us. It's the same with the listeners.
JazzReview.com: How much of making it in the music business is
raw talent versus hand work and dedication?
DellaRatta: I think the problem is that there's a huge disparity
between making it as an artist and making it in terms of making a
living. There are personal goals that you want to achieve as an
artist that don't necessarily have anything to do with your
ability to make living financially as an artist. So unfortunately
there's a conflict you're posed with a situation where you're
tempted in order to make ends meet than you like on the business
side of things. And you worry about it taking away from reaching
your artistic goals. It often becomes conflicting in what you need
to do to become a successful and in the business side of music
often conflicts with what you feel you need to do in terms of
achieving your own musical goals.
JazzReview.com: Where will you be performing next?
DellaRatta: I just came back from Philadelphia. I was playing with
a Brazilian band, A Brazilian rhythm section from NY along with
some fine horn players from Philadelphia. I have a few gigs in NYC
and Conn. One in Hartford with my own trio at the 880 jazz club
and another Main and Hopewell with my quartet. The clubs are
getting smaller. The festivals are once a year and they make you
feel you are going to a jazz festival and there is no jazz. It's
mixed with other forms of music. But where is the jazz. There's
something that needs to be changed and that's what I hope to do. I
do something that I feel is marketable yet it doesn't eliminate
jazz. Whereas, most marketable supposedly jazz artist don't have
much jazz in their act. I can't do it on my own, someone will have
to recognize that I'm trying to do this and I think I can make a
contribution. Give me the opportunity to make that contribution to
bring jazz to the table without alienating an audience that just
don't know what jazz is. What I'm hoping for is some of these
festivals to get to the point where they say instead of an act
that has no jazz in it why don't we bring Rick and see if Rick can
reach the generic audience and still give them jazz. That's my
JazzReview.com: What advice would you give someone who thinks
he or she might want to pursue a career in jazz?
DellaRatta: There is a great guitarist I played with name Mike
Goodrich who said to me if you have to play jazz, if it's
something you don't have to do then by all means avoid it. But if
it's something you have to do. Then do it. There's no profession
like it. All the rewards in the world are open to you. So I think
you must follow your star, follow your heart and don't worry about
the obstacles. You will be rewarded one way or another. Even
though so few artist get rewarded with a record contract or
acclaim or publicity or gigs and so many great artist have
struggled and died penniless and every thing. And even though it's
all that adversity, I recall Larry Willis, The great pianist once
told me. One of the keys to life is to create opportunity from
adversity. Therefore, my advice is follow your star and you'll be
glad you did.
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Photo by: © Morrice Blackwell
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