Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
FBPO: Among the accolades on your website bio, it says you "whistled for Michael Jackson." You want to tell us about that?
RH: I was listed in the union book as an "artistic whistler." Back in the '90s, Michael's people called me and another guy from the union book in to whistle for this march that was one of many, many songs in contention for inclusion on a forthcoming project (I don't think it made the cut). Much to my embarrassment, it was at this session that I learned that when I whistle, I also produce a low guttural hum, which a Neumann mic does an excellent job of capturing. ("Um, we're hearing something in here...") Years later, while whistling for a track on a D.C. Anderson CD, the engineer discovered that if you roll off everything below 1K on my whistling track, the guttural thing goes away and it sounds great. Honest.
FBPO: In addition to your ensemble work, you've been known to perform with just you and your bass. Is that like a Jay Leonhart type of thing, i.e., part humor/part music, or is it something else?
RH: I have indeed done the solo bass/voice thing, and yes, there can be a humor element in it, in the patter and/or music. In describing it to folks, especially if they say something like, "Oh, like Jay Leonhart?," I'll say, "Yes, only a generation younger." So yes, it's like Jay, and it's also something else. One night, I took my G.A.T.T. (Girlfriend At The Time) down to the Village Vanguard to hear Bill Charlap’s trio, with Peter Washington on bass. Peter was using a single-finger right-hand technique on gut strings – very fat and old school, which I really admired! Jay Leonhart happened to be there that night and in a conversation we had at the bar, he called me an “incurable romantic.” I think he was referring to my date, but perhaps there's more of that in my tunes too.
FBPO: So, are you a jazz guy?
RH: Not as much as Jay. Er, I mean, sure! Where's the gig, when do you want me there, what do I have to wear, and can I go direct or do I need a small amp? (If I have to wear a tux AND bring an amp, there'll be a surcharge.)
FBPO: I understand you've done some acting, too.
RH: Yup, mostly in a genre of musical theatre called "guitar musicals." It's where the cast doubles as the on-stage band. I got my start doing "Pump Boys and Dinettes" in the '80s. I was playing in a band that was opening for Dr. John at the Lone Star Cafe in NYC. Dr. John's bassist, Gary Bristol, recommended me for the Cleveland company of "Pump Boys." I got the gig and ended up doing 7 different productions in the '80s, including the Hollywood company for 8 months in '86-'87. That was the gig that took me to L.A., where I stayed for 15 years before returning to my senses and NYC. Since then, I've done a couple other musicals written by Jim Wann, one of the main creators of "Pump Boys," including an Off-Broadway showcase last summer of "The People vs. Mona," soon to be published by Samuel French. For that, I was assistant musical director, led the on-stage "bar band," and played my plywood beater bass upright (an Englehardt from a mom-and-pop shop in New Haven, which I've had since high school), Danelectro longhorn and Fluke ukulele. I also sang and, yes, engaged in what some dare call acting.
And then there was that time I portrayed an alien bassoonist on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," complete with full facial prosthetics. And the time I pretended to play fiddle for the movie, "Wild Bill," with Jeff Bridges, but I ended up on the cutting room floor. I still got a song out of that one though: "20 Feet Away," which is on my first CD, "It's Me!" It includes the line, "Jeff Bridges is standin' in the spotlight/I'm in the shadows playin' seventh fiddle."
FBPO: What exactly is "ManBassBoxTV?"
RH: It’s my public access TV series. I began producing it in L.A. in March 1993. The original title was, “A Man, a Bass & a Box of Stuff.” Music and conversation with independent musical artists, I described it as "Tom Snyder meets Marian McPartland." Out in L.A., you could get a 2-hour block of time in the studio, complete with full support crew and a 3-camera shoot. I produced 157 episodes like that. When I moved back to NYC, there were just too many hoops to jump through to get the same production set-up, so for a while I just played reruns. Then, I started building episodes on my laptop, first with iMovie and now with Final Cut Pro. I started calling it "ManBassBoxTV" a couple years ago. The 210th episode just aired in NYC last month. Whereas I used to focus on other people's music, it's evolved into the life and times of a freelance musician on the road and living in NYC. Some of the short films that make up the episodes these days can be seen at YouTube.com/ManBassBoxTV.
FBPO: On top of everything else, you're an educator, too! What exactly do you do (and where do you find the time)?
RH: I have taught bass privately (both upright and electric), but I haven't done that in a while. After years of frustratingly trying to decipher "charts" that people would hand me to play – often just lyrics with chord changes written above, or better yet, stuff that LOOKED like music, but... – I wrote an instructional tome, "Chart Writing Made Easy (a.k.a. Writhing Charts Even a Bass Player Can Read)," available at RittHenn.com (of course). I occasionally conduct workshops at songwriting camps in conjunction with the book. Where do I find the time? Well, on page 7, I talk about figuring out the time signature. :^}
The following Ritt Henn CDs are available in the FBPO store:
FBPO: So, what's next for Ritt Henn?
RH: On the immediate horizon, I’ll be doing a couple cool sideguy gigs in NYC. One is at Feinstein's, a posh cabaret, where I’ll be accompanying Julie Reyburn, who's performing a tune I wrote in her set. Another is at Joe's Pub, where I’ll be accompanying Rachel Bay Jones for the release gig of a cool CD I played on called, "ShowFolk," which has a bunch of old and new Broadway tunes set with an acoustic Appalachian flavor. After that, I head off to Swans Island in Maine, where I've been the house bassist for the Sweet Chariot Music Festival since 2001. (I'm also a featured artist up there.)
And the next big thing, Ritt-wise and release-wise, is the CD/DVD combo pack, "All Kidding Aside," a collection of whimsical tunes and short films that has been sitting on the back burner for way too long; it's a companion piece to the latest album, "Timber." (Some of the band tracks were culled from the "Timber" sessions, but weren't included on that album.) It's almost finished; I just keep getting distracted. (I know, it's hard to imagine.)
And I look forward to writing more tunes with Mary Liz McNamara, with whom I'm currently trying to bang out our third co-write. Damn, I want this thing finished!
FBPO: What do you like to do that's not necessarily musically oriented?
RH: Well, video and photography, though that's still "media" oriented. It’s sort of the same thing, especially when one is the CEO (okay, sole proprietor) of Inimitable Media.
What I LOVE to do is ride my bike, though since I left L.A. in 2001, I hardly ever get the chance. I was doing summer stock up on Cape Cod a couple years ago, playing for "Guys and Dolls," and I took my bike. The bike trails out there are wonderful. I was in heaven.
And on my birthday, my buddies Rex Benincasa (percussionist and 3/8ths of the ensemble, RITTnREX), Rich Jenkins (pianist with whom I used to work regularly over at the St. Regis hotel before they got rid of the bass players) and Frank Wagner (bassist/music therapist) go bowling.
Yup, livin' large in New York City.
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