Featured Artist at the R Buckle Road Relief & Benefit Concert @ The Date Shed, September 21st, 8pm
By Lisa Morgan
I have often heard of artists referred to as a “savant”; a connoisseur or master, if you will, of their chosen field or art. I had never actually met one before. Riz Orkestra changed that. Eyes closed, the look of pure joy streaming from his face and feet keeping time to his original music masterfully played on his personally customized electric slide guitars, Riz transported himself and took the audience with him to a century old Mississippi front porch. He works the blues like a preacher works a prayer with songs like “No More Credit at the Liquor Store” and “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”. Impressed as I was, I had only tapped into the surface of all that is Riz Orkestra. Humble and unpretentious as they come, it wasn’t until I sat down and interviewed this soulful individual, that I realized I was in the presence of a master.
Riz Orkestra spent his most formative and earliest years in his grandfather’s house, a private practice physician with a deep love for music and a house full of instruments of which he freely shared with his grandson. “I had a really mystical experience,” shared Riz, “sitting at the piano in my grandfather’s house, this big beautiful home in New England. My feet were just dangling from the piano bench, when my great grandmother sits down next to me and looks me in the eyes. Gosh I loved that old gal! She had these wonderful blue eyes. We just looked across the ages at each other. She communicated this piece of music to me with just her gaze, a simple little melody; I couldn’t play it for you today, but I still remember the logic and musicality of it. Soon my grandmother comes running in yelling, ‘Where did you learn that?’ I told her, ‘Babcia showed me’ (that’s what we called my great grandmother). Well she turned shocked, spanked me and sent me upstairs. Years later, come to find out, that may have been because, by that time, my great grandmother had already passed. My Grandmother later confirmed that the music I was playing was music she remembered growing up with. As far as where the roots of my music is… that’s my earliest musical memory.” Riz was four years old at the time. “The energetic function of music in this dynamic of life, some of it evident and some of it less evident, is still always very present and it’s fascinating,” he went on to share. “I have a storyline of experiences to this present day like that, with people and with music.”
Another definitive moment, he recalled, was sitting at the piano with his grandfather playing a duet his grandfather had taught him. He remembers very clearly playing the part he had learned and watching his grandfather go from playing the rehearsed part to improvising his own part. “When you’re hanging with an elder, you can feel them in your mind checking you out. As I watched him create this improvised piece, it opened up a whole new trajectory in my young mind that I’ve had ever since. Today I’m a composer and an improviser and I do both comfortably.” Riz left his grandparent’s home after the age of four, and grew up in a standard lower-middle-class non-creative environment after that. Still, this early foundation would remain his life’s theme. “I went to 9 different schools as a kid. I was always the ‘new kid’ at school. Music became my social currency, and with it came with a wonderful family of characters. With no formal training, Riz explained, “I just hit the streets right away, finding musicians to learn from. It’s the old school way. It’s the way you’re supposed to do it, I think. You get with the people and learn to play FOR the people. For most of my adult life, I’ve been grateful for the good fortune to play music.”
Today, where music is concerned, it might be easier to answer what Riz Orkestra DOESN’T do or hasn’t done. A professional and accomplished pianist with 11 solo piano CDs recorded in Japan, Scotland, Mexico and different parts of California, Riz explained how visiting these different geographies and landscapes gives each of these recordings a unique sound, “Just like there’s a sound to the ocean and another sound to the mountains.”
A highly sought after jazz vibraphone player and a masterful slide guitar player, Riz recently earned a degree in Music Composition for Orchestra and Film at the Claremont Colleges. The rare recipient of a coveted grant from PItzer College, Riz wrote his first full symphonic piece which was performed at the college. “That was quite an accomplishment for slide playin’ guitar goof,” he said humbly and smilingly. “The day the symphony played my piece, I was driving home and I thought I was going to cry. That was the manifestation of a life dream come true; 9 minutes of music that took me half a year to write. The reality of that changed my life. Part of what I’ve been doing lately is composing more rigorously, because I want to live in that world.” Then, matter-of-factly, Riz announced, “Oh, and I did my first major motion picture film score a year and a half ago. David Landsberg, who produced the Cosby show and wrote for The Love Boat, decided he wanted to make a comedy called ‘Sex Tax’. I was part of one of three teams of composers assembled for this movie. We wrote and recorded 126 pieces of music in 7 days for the film.” More than two-thirds of the music chosen for this movie, for which he brought in “two truck loads of instruments” was written and performed by Riz. “Instruments find me,” he laughed. “I’m the Saint Francis of stray musical instruments it seems.” The movie, soon to be released to video, can be found on www.imdb.com.
The stories went on and my fascination grew as did my respect. Here was a man, pure in his love of music, speaking lovingly of opening many times for Delta blues legend John Lee Hooker who would let him, and only him, sit in his personal straight-back wooden stage chair at Marin county’s Sweetwater; his years playing with Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, playing with Dan hicks and the Christmas jug band. And I knew this understated troubadour was just skimming the surface. “I did a month in Paris last September,” he added. “five shows and three studio sessions.” I asked what inspired the trip, and he said, “I don’t know – musical adventure! …I got on Facebook and started looking up people in the Paris blues scene, and they started responding. I was their American guy on the records.”
On Saturday, September 21st at The Date Shed near the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, Riz Orkestra will be gracing the stage along with Wade Crawford and the Country Trash, and R Buckle Road. Together they will be doing a live recording and raising money to support some very important, donor dependent charities in the process: House of Hope woman’s recovery home, the American Red Cross and C.A.S.A. (Court Appointed Special Advocates for kids in the foster care system). Don’t miss this chance to meet and listen to the West Coast California Roots music of this accomplished and experienced artist. You can also follow Riz on Facebook: www.facebook.com/riz.orkestra. There’s a world of YouTube videos where you can experience his music at www.youtube.com/rizorkestra . This is a seasoned artist who is sure to leave a giant musical footprint. Enjoy him, while we have him here. Who knows where his next adventure will lead him.