For all of his decades of experience as a guitarist, producer, and singer, Rick Derringer recently took his avocation in yet other musical directions.
Among the classic instruments Derringer played throughout his career was a late-’50s Gibson Explorer. And nowadays, Derringer garners acclaim and chart action for his new recordings in the “smooth jazz” genre.
“I grew up listening to a huge variety of music,” he noted. “My folks had a lot of country music, but they had a lot of jazz, too, like the Les Paul Trio. I grew up loving Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, Barney Kessel… lots of people. I always looked at myself as a musician first and foremost, and as a singer/songwriter second.
“And I always loved jazz. But when you’re a kid, you end up playing what your friends like, which for me was rock and roll.”
The decision to pursue a smooth jazz direction was done at the urging of his wife.
“A few years ago, Brenda told me ‘There’s nothing making you do (rock and roll) anymore; you can do whatever you want,’” the guitarist recalled. “She encouraged me to do a demo, which was ‘Jazzy Koo’, a jazz version of ‘Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo’. The first company that heard it told me they wanted me to do an entire record like that.”
The resulting Free Ride (Big 3 Records) also includes covers of “Frankenstein” and the title cut. Derringer produced the Edgar Winter Group’s first album, They Only Come Out At Night, on which those two hits appeared, and joined as the guitarist on that band’s second album. Other tracks include covers of songs from Derringer’s solo career and new material, as well as two vocal tunes. “Jazzy Koo” was the first single, and the followup was “Hot & Cool” (which was number 18 on a jazz chart when VG talked with Derringer).
The guitarist drew the line with three covers of hits, proclaiming that “… if I’d done one more version of a hit, the album would have come off like a novelty record.”
Derringer has an admitted penchant for red guitars, and we asked about a modern single-pickup D’Angelico pictured in the album’s liner notes.
“That was one that was made by Jim Triggs, a great guitarmaker,” said Derringer. “I used it on the whole album, but it’s hard to play it live. I can’t turn it up because it squeals like crazy. So I have one of the current D’Angelicos they sell out of New Jersey; it’s one of the most beautiful instruments I’ve ever had. I use it for some of the quieter [live] things, and for other songs, I might pick up my PRS hollowbody; it’s on the album cover.”
The guitarist acknowledges and appreciates the effort of erstwhile Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick (page 18) and his trio (consisting of hollowbody electric guitar, drums, and upright bass) on Skolnick’s Goodbye to Romance album, noting, “I’ve got that album, and it’s great! He’s doing more pure jazz, and I’m doing smooth jazz.”
Derringer also has a trio, but for his efforts in classic rock rather than jazz. For the latter, his aggregation is a sextet. One of the first live concerts the ensemble did was on a Las Vegas TV show.
Yet another new direction for Derringer is both musical and spiritual. He had a born-again experience in the late ’90s, crediting his wife for facilitating his lifestyle change. He’s done some Christian recordings, including an album with his family titled Aiming for Heaven, and anticipates creating more Christian music in the near future. He looks forward to ongoing success in the smooth jazz genre as well.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.