Ever hear of a piccolo that blows a mean sax, doubles on guitar and writes songs in any number of styles?
Former Roomful of Blues tenor saxman Greg Piccolo is on a mission to prove his versatility. Since embarking on a solo career in 1994, Piccolo, who will play three shows in Southern California this week, has added a number of tricks, affirming that he’s much more than your ordinary sideman.
With his first solo album, 1995’s “Acid Blue,” Piccolo stretched out a bit from the jump-blues formula of Roomful but still played in a more-or-less roots-bound style, and covers dominated the song selection.
But two short years have seen Piccolo grow remarkably as an artist, and the newly released “Red Lights” offers ample proof of his development.
Covers remain an important part of Piccolo’s repertoire, with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles among those receiving the treatment. But such impressive originals as the cool and jazzy “My Baby’s Gone,” the swamp choogle of “Rockin’ Chair,” the calypso sway of “Everytime I Turn Around,” the sweet pop of “Tired of Waitin’ for a Change” and the peppery funk of “Money” make up the salubrious meat of the new album.
“I’ve always written, and I have enough material to put out a whole bunch of albums,” Piccolo said in a recent phone interview. “But I guess I’ve never felt a need to do all original material on any of the records I put out.”
Piccolo gives credit for any musical improvements to his band, Heavy Juice, of keyboardist Barry Seleen, bassist Paul Tomasello, percussionist John La Moia and drummer P.J. Plenninger.
While “Acid Blue” depended largely on studio mercenaries, Piccolo and his regular company have a sound honed through years of roadwork.
“The music has developed, and it’s still developing as it goes along,” he said. “I feel like we’re getting more of a band sound now. I didn’t have a defined band when I made the other record. I really like using my band, getting them established. This is my thing, but at the same time, I’ve always been somebody who likes having a band situation.”
“Red Lights” also exhibits the almost phenomenal maturity of Piccolo as a guitarist. He picked up the instrument only a few years back, yet he plays here with emotional depth and resonance. Every note rings true, every riff effectively complements the material.
“I play the guitar like a horn--the only difference is you don’t have to blow into it,” he said. “My style of guitar playing is to fill around what I’m doing. I just like to play it, and I think I can put feeling into what I can do. It’s a very simple style anyway. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with the guitar until I just got up onstage and started playing it.”
Piccolo also delivers soulful if thin-timbred vocals, but he is best known for his work on tenor (and, more recently, alto) saxophone. A student of the instrument and the great players in jazz and blues, Piccolo brings a little of each mentor to his sound. Even on contemporary material, the roots sensibility never abandons him.
“Illinois Jacquet is my all-time favorite,” he said. “Also Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Louis Jordan, Earl Bostic, Charlie Parker, Red Prysock, Arnett Cobb, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt. . . . King Curtis is a guy a lot of people mention, but my style comes from before that. In my mind, I’m coming from before 1955.”
Piccolo, 46, grew up in Westerly, R.I. He dug the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals and other British Invasion rock groups. Then young guitarist Duke Robillard moved to town and hipped Piccolo to the roots of the British sound. The teens formed a band in high school that would lead to a 20-year-plus musical partnership when Roomful of Blues started up in the late ‘60s.
After so much time in Roomful, Piccolo got the itch to play in a number of different styles, hence his solo career.
Although the move may be artistically fulfilling, it’s commercially dicey. But Piccolo said he’s not concerned. He wants to do what moves him.
“What kind of music does Sting play?” he asked. “He plays Sting music. I play Greg Piccolo music. I want to be known for being me and doing what I do. If it’s gonna take a little more time to get over because I’m eclectic and can’t be pigeonholed and put on one shelf, well . . . that’s just the way it’s gonna be. I feel like I’ve made progress. This album represents me very well, and the next one I do will be even better than that. “
* Greg Piccolo and Heavy Juice will perform three shows: tonight at 9 at Blind Melon’s, 710 Garnet Ave., San Diego, $5, (619) 483-7844; Thursday at 9:30 p.m. at Blue Cafe, 210 Promenade North, Long Beach, $7, (562) 983-7111; Saturday at 9 p.m. as the opening act for John Mayall at House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, $20, (213) 848-5100.