Kevin Ricard: Idol Hands

Kevin Ricard: Idol Hands

It’s the Friday before the Grammy Awards show and percussionist Kevin Ricard is mingling with the Dave Matthews Band in the big room at Burbank’s Center Staging. Matthews will be doing “You And Me” on the show and asked Ricard to join him on stage for the performance. Ricard talks briefly on his cellphone while the engineers set up the mikes and cables.

“It’s going to be quite a production,” Ricard says. “There’s a lot of energy in the air and about 45 people milling around. There’s a choir, a full string section, a bunch of horns, Dave and his band, and four percussionists. I’ll be playing bata, the Yoruba drum that made its way to Cuba. Jesus Diaz will be on djun-djun, a drum from the djembe family. Angel Rodriquez is playing shekere. And Walter Rodriquez is playing djembe.

“We’ll be playing live during the telecast, but because of the logistics — the number of people on stage and the short amount of time they’ll have to change the sets between acts on Sunday and the impossibility of miking everyone and doing a sound check — we have to be here today to do some prerecording. We’ll be doing a few run-throughs and some of the tracks will be recorded as we rehearse. On the live show, they’ll mix some of the prerecorded stuff with what we’ll be doing live.” In the middle of his explanation, Ricard gets a call from the producer and says he has to go, promising to call back the day after the show to continue the interview.

Grammy Wrap-up. “It was a productive weekend,” Ricard says the Monday following the Grammy telecast. “Friday we took three passes at ‘You And Me’ with the whole ensemble — choir, strings, horns, percussion, and Dave and his band. Then we did a pass with just me and Walter [Rodriquez], and another pass with the percussionists adding accents with hand percussion: tambourines, cowbells, maracas, shekere, and gourds.

“Saturday night I was in the house band for the Clive Davis party with American Idol drummer Teddy Campbell. I work with him a lot on TV soundtracks. We played with the American Idol band and backed up Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, and Mary J. Blige. Sunday night I played with Dave Matthews. I was the bald-headed guy dancing around with the other percussionists.

“It was a great gig. I think it was one of the biggest groups they’ve ever had on stage at the Grammys, and Dave is the coolest superstar I’ve ever met. It’s refreshing to see someone so comfortable in his own skin. There was no drama or ego. I told him we’d have to rename the group the Dave Matthews Big Band.”

Avoiding The Labels. Ricard wanted to be a percussionist since he first heard Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White playing kalimba. “I’d played guitar in bands, but I was just messing around until [1974’s] Open Our Eyes opened my ears, so to speak. I got a beat-up old conga in 1977 and started playing in salsa bands and let the music take me where it wanted to go.” Refusing to be pigeonholed from the start, Ricard took gigs with Latin, jazz, pop, and rock artists such as Christina Aguilera, Joe Zawinul, Marc Anthony, Queen Latifah, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, and Celia Cruz. But many people have come to know him best because of his high-profile gig as the percussionist in the house band for the Fox blockbuster American Idol.

“I’ve been on A.I. since January of 2003,” Ricard says. “I got a call during the first season, when they were still using prerecorded tracks. A percussionist didn’t show up and they asked me to fill in. I remember opening the check a few weeks later and thinking, ‘This pays really well. I hope they call me again.’

“On season two, Nigel Lythgoe was the music director. He called me for a prerecord session on a Sunday morning. We recorded all the music for the following week’s shows. After the session, Nigel asked if I could do it for the rest of the season. Nigel works fast — you have to do things in one take, even if you’re doing more than one part. I remember playing shekere and tambourine simultaneously on one track. On season three, Rickey Minor took over. I’d worked with him on the Motown Live show and he asked me to be the band’s regular percussionist. It’s an amazing situation and the band does other big shows besides A.I.: the People’s Choice Awards, the VH1 Diva shows, Christmas shows for Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson.”

Pressure Cooker. During the show’s run, the A.I. band goes into Capitol Records every Sunday morning to cut all the music for the next week’s shows. That includes rhythm section, percussion, horns, strings, and backing vocals. Most of the tunes get laid down in one take, so there’s considerable pressure to get things right.

“Our job is to provide background so the artist can give their best performance,” Ricard explains. “We give our best to the artist. Rickey [Minor] works with the singers to find out what they need to make the song as good as it can be. If a contestant asks for drums for four bars in this section, or to lower the key a half step, they ask him. Sometimes there are last minute changes and it’s our job to make them happen.

“Since it’s live TV, you have to get it right. A big part of the job is to make it look effortless. You don’t want to hit a crash cymbal when there’s supposed to be silence. You have to sound good, but the band has been working together for a long time now, so we know each other’s playing. Since we do other TV shows beside Idol, we’re intuitive with each other in terms of making the music feel good. We’re used to getting it done fast.”

Since there are no prerecords for the live show, every Sunday the band heads to Capitol records to record full-length versions of the songs being performed on the show that will be made available on iTunes as soon as the contestants add their vocals the following day, before the broadcast is even aired. “We cut 12 songs on the first Sunday, then one less each week as people are eliminated,” Ricard explains. “On Monday we go to the sound stage and rehearse the shortened versions that are performed on the show. We get them down to a minute and a half to a minute and 40 seconds. We rehearse those versions Monday morning and, in the afternoon, the contestants come in and do the shorted versions with us live. That’s where we do the last minute tweaking of the arrangements and make any key changes that need to be made.”

Tools Of The Trade. As a percussionist, Ricard has a bit more leeway with the colors he adds to a tune, but that freedom comes at a cost. “I can’t bring every percussion instrument in my arsenal into the studio every week, but it helps to have a large amount of sound available at a moment’s notice for recording.” To ensure he’s fully loaded, Ricard uses a Roland SPD-S and a HandSonic electronic pad. “They have the sound of bongos, congas, timbales, cymbals, and a lot of the stuff I’d have on my percussion table programmed into them,” he says. “For classic songs, like Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You,’ you need that big massive drum sound. I sampled the beat from the record onto the SPD-S and we’ll use that on the show. It’s the iconic sound you hear at sporting events. I also sample my own playing from my collection of percussion instruments. On the TV stage, there’s not a lot of room. If I need sounds, I have to find them on the electronic pad.”

But live, anything can happen, and at the last minute someone may want to do something all acoustically. “I use the cajon quite a bit when they want that kind of setting,” Ricard says. “So it’ll be just cajon, stand-up bass, and guitar. You have the kick drum sound coming out of the porthole in the back [of the cajon] and the high snare snap from the strings inside. You get the feel of a drum kit, without the big loud sound. It makes the music more intimate.”

Ricard has become so well known for his work on cajon, in fact, Latin Percussion asked him what he’d like in an ideal instrument and designed the Kevin Ricard cajon to his specifications, which is made by Mario Cortes in Spain. “I wanted a sharp separation between the kick and the snare sound. There are adjustable strings inside the box that get a nice string vibration when you play the snare sound and there’s a nice fat kick sound that you can control with an adjustable porthole in the back of the drum. The door slides up or down to cover the porthole. As the hole gets smaller, the note goes down. You get a tight kick sound with it three-quarters up. With it open all the way, you get a big, fat resonant sound.”

A Band Of His Own. In addition to American Idol, recording sessions for film and TV soundtrack work, not to mention über-high-profile gigs like the Music Of The Civil Rights Movement special he recently filmed for PBS at a command performance in the Obama White House, Ricard also plays in Sambaguru, his own Afro Brazilian band.

A.I. is tightly formatted, so it’s fun to be able to go out and play original music,” Ricard says. “The band started as a quartet, with singer Kátia Moraes. When they added guitar and percussion, I joined the band. It slowly grew into what it is today. The drummer is Tony Shogren, who also plays percussion, which allows me to explore other parts of my playing and really dig in. When I’m done with a gig, I’m soaking wet with sweat.

“Our sound is based on Brazilian styles, but we explore R&B, flamenco, funk, salsa, and Congolese music too. Brazilian music has a multiplicity of styles, like afoxé, forro, and choro. It’s not all samba. We all colead the band, but I do a lot of the legwork — booking the tours, getting the tickets and booking the hotels, making the payrolls, renting the van. I’m also the manager, arranger, and sometimes the publicist as well.”

With all the projects he’s involved in, does Ricard ever have time to practice? He chuckles. “It depends on the week. I try to practice as much as possible, but when I’m rehearsing or playing every night, I don’t have the time. I do find time to work on my hand technique, concentrating on specific instruments. One week I might concentrate on pandeiro, for example, although mastering it would take a whole lifetime in itself.

“For me, everything is geared toward the song. I’m not aspiring to be a star. I want to make good music in whatever situation I’m in. In Lucky 7, a salsa band, I only play bongos, cowbell, and guiro. In Sambaguru, I play zabumba, the bass drum they use in forro. I’m a groove-oriented player and I feel like I still have a long way to go. I didn’t get my first drum until I was 19, which is relatively late to start playing an instrument.”

On The Beaten Path. Ricard grew up in Santa Monica, California in a family of music lovers. “My parents and older brothers loved jazz and Latin jazz. I grew up absorbing Mongo, Cal Tjader, Sergio Mendes, Coltrane, Miles, all those albums. I loved them, even though I didn’t know what I was appreciating. I learned guitar in school — scales and chords — and played in church, but that was as far as it went. Then I heard Earth, Wind & Fire and started thinking seriously about music. I took a few courses to be a recording engineer, but it was an invitation to a drum circle that was the turning point. I brought along my guitar and kalimba, but you couldn’t hear them over the sound of the congas. I picked up a pair of bongos and something came over me. I felt like I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t know a thing. That’s when the bug bit.”

Ricard studied music theory and sight singing at Santa Monica college and started playing congas for dance classes. “The beautiful women were part of the attraction, but I also met Eytan Ben Sheviya, who had lived in Puerto Rico. He taught me the basics of clave and the patterns you need to know to play the bongos and maracas. I was going to school, working day jobs, and playing as much as possible, mostly with Latin jazz and salsa bands, working five or six nights a week.”

Ricard’s big break came when his friend Munyungo Jackson asked him if he’d like to play with The Temptations. “He’d just been hired by Miles Davis,” Ricard recalls. “He asked if I’d like to audition for his spot with The Temps.” Ricard auditioned on a Sunday afternoon, and by Tuesday he was on the road with the band. He stayed with them through two years of worldwide touring. The Temps gig led to session work and a spot on Paula Abdul’s first tour playing hand percussion and electronic samplers. “I didn’t want to get branded as a Latin percussionist, so I took every gig that came along. I worked with Dave Koz, Clare Fischer’s Latin jazz band, Bette Midler, B.B. King, and Kenny Loggins. When I auditioned for Loggins, he had me play for about a minute then he said, ‘I can see you can play; let’s go sing. You’ll have to harmonize with me and my other percussionist.’ The other percussionist was Vicki Randle, who now plays with Jay Leno’s band. I got the gig and did a live record, a studio record, a children’s record, and three concert videos with him.”

But of all of Ricard’s gigs, it was probably his five-year stint with Stevie Wonder, from 1998–2003, that still resonates the most. “If I never played another note, I could retire happy after playing with him. The first time I was on stage with [Wonder] was at Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday celebration in South Africa. We played cricket stadiums in Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town to thousands of screaming people. Nothing will ever impress me again after that. It was a defining moment in my life, and not just my musical life.”

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