Interview | Rodney Richardson: A departing guitarist reflects on his hometown and comrades

Rodney Richardson, shown playing at the D.C. Jazz Loft, performs with Lena Seikaly at the Atlas on Wednesday. Giovanni Russonello/CapitalBop

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

Rodney Richardson has lived in Washington, D.C. his whole life. He attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Howard University, and in the past five years has situated himself as one of the local jazz scene’s go-to guitar players. This month, though, the nation’s capital will lose Richardson, who is planning a move to Chicago.

Fans of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra know his smoldering tone, his loping phrasing on ballads and cutting, surefooted runs on uptempo tunes – he’s been a member of the BCJO since the beginning. Others have heard Richardson perform at Twins during the short-lived but dynamic Sunday Jazz Lounge, or at Bossa Bistro with his organ trio. (In 2010, that band released a fetching debut album, This Is the Rodney Richardson Trio, which made CapitalBop’s list of the year’s top five D.C. jazz records.)

On Wednesday, Richardson performs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center with his trio, plus vocalist Lena Seikaly. It’ll be his last concert before he moves. Prior to the show, at 6 p.m., he and Seikaly will lead a free master class that’s open to anyone. I caught up with Richardson earlier this week to discuss what he’ll miss about the city, and the music he’ll continue to make in the Midwest.

CapitalBop: Tell me a little about the band you’ll perform with on Wednesday.

Rodney Richardson: Larry Ferguson is on drums: He and I have been playing together in different groups for a long time. He plays in the BCJO with me a lot, and he’s been in this organ trio since the beginning, in 2010.

On organ, we’ve got Todd Simon…. Todd just sounds great. He can do no wrong on the organ.… He’s on a minimum of two gigs a day – a very in-demand player.

Lena’s going to be singing with us. That [partnership] is something that developed recently…. The group does a lot of interpretations of modern popular tunes, and we usually did them without lyrics, but it’s nice to add the voice.

CB: As a guitar player, what do you learn from playing with a vocalist?

RR: I think the main lesson i’ve learned from performing with a vocalist – and I didn’t do a whole lot of that before starting to play with Lena a couple years ago – is sensitivity. Lena especially has taught me how to really listen when performing, and I’ve learned how important that really is. Especially with a vocalist you have to be incredibly sensitive and constantly listening, because you never know what’s going to happen.

CB: What type of popular music you like to cover, and why?

RR: One thing I quickly found out when I started working with an organ trio is that there’s a ton of music that lends itself really well to the organ trio sound. I found that to be a great opportunity to bring in material that’s influenced me over the years…. Jazz is mainly what I love to play, but as a teenager I was very influenced by classic rock groups and all kinds of music – Frank Zappa especially.

In the organ trio, I had the opportunity to bring in some tunes and put them into a jazz concept. Just having that organ sound makes it easier. Some of the tunes we’ll be playing on Wednesday are a great arrangement of a Led Zeppelin tune called “Rain Song,” then we’re doing a cover of a Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun.” I did an arrangement of that in 5/4 time, which seems to work very well. And then one big influence for me is this guitar player named Daniel Rossen, who’s in a rock band called Grizzly Bear. We’ve covered a couple Grizzly Bear tunes and we did a tune by [Rosen’s other band] Dept. of Eagles on our album: “Phantom Other.” … And then we’re gonna do some arrangements of jazz standards – we’ll do “Putting on the Ritz” – and then a couple of my original tunes.

CB: What is it about the organ trio dynamic that makes it feel so malleable for you?

RR: The organ – especially that classic Hammond B3, which we’ll have for the show on Wednesday – just sounds so good. I haven’t really heard anything with a B3 sound on it that i said, “Oh, it shouldn’t be there.” … When I’m improvising in an organ trio setting, I just feel like I can play anything and it’ll sound good.

“I feel like I’ve grown as a musician and developed a sound based on what I’ve been hearing here in D.C.”

 
CB: Who are some of your favorite organists and organ groups?

RR: Probably my biggest influence on guitar is Wes Montgomery, and he did a lot of organ trio albums. I listen to a lot of George Benson, and that stuff he did w Jack McDuff. I also love the albums that [organist] Larry Young did, one called Unity and another called Into Somethin’, with Grant Green [on guitar].

I also dig some of the more modern organists today – Gary Versace and Sam Yahel, who was in Joshua Redman’s Elastic Band.

CB:What are your memories of the D.C. scene and your thoughts on its current state?

RR: I’ve got tons of great experiences on the D.C. jazz scene, and I feel really lucky to have been a part of it and plan on continuing to be as much of a part of it as I can. In the last five years, there’s been so many more venues opening up, and so much more attention being paid to it  … I just think that the scene here is getting to be so great, and competing with scenes in other scenes in major cities.… It’s just been a great experience for me to play with so many different people here, and I feel like I’ve grown as a musician and developed a sound based on what I’ve been hearing here in D.C…. I’m definitely sad to be leaving D.C. I’ve never lived anywhere else. But at the same time, I’m excited to explore a new jazz scene in Chicago.

The Rodney Richardson Trio performs with Lena Seikaly at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. More information is available here, and tickets can be purchased here. They cost $25, or $15 for students.

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