Rico Jones: Tenor Saxophonist Making Waves on the NYC Jazz Scene
By Kaju Roberto
I first met jazz tenor saxophonist Rico Jones outside the Apple Store in the West Village on 14th Street and Ninth Avenue on a mid-afternoon in early November 2022. He was playing with a mixed bag ensemble of 8-10 jazz street musicians. Coming out of the store, I was eager to get on with my day.
Usually I never stop to listen to street performers in NYC, even though there are a plethora of them everywhere, from the subway to major street corners. Particularly if I am feeling rushed.
All I can remember was that this was different. Collectively, these musicians were playing straight ahead jazz from the American songbook–but these were some of the most amazing sounds I’d heard coming from street performers.
When they finished their first song, I thought to myself, “Now play something really challenging. Play Giant Steps by John Coltrane.”
I swear, uncannily within 30 seconds, the band hit it–the tenor sax went into that famous opening line, and for the next five minutes, the band performed an incredible monster!
It was Giant Steps! It was Rico! There was a now a crowd of 25 enthralled people giving high-spirited applause.
At the end of their great set, we caught each other’s eye as Rico was packing his sax. After introducing myself, I could sense his friendly vibe. We shared some musical stories and common influences, and immediately hit it off. He invited me to his gig at Café Bohemia in the Village.
We went to that Café Bohemia gig on Barrow Street, and enjoyed the Rico Jones Trio’s performance. That night in December was the last time I would see or hear from Rico for a while.
Fast-forward eight months later, I caught up with Rico and I was blown away. He is now playing with Sylvia Cuenca’s band, a brilliant drummer whose list of credits reads like a Who’s Who of jazz luminaries.
I never doubted Rico’s purely great talent—he is a six-time Downbeat Magazine winner—but I’ve seen too many wonderfully talented musicians over the years who have remained unknown.
In less than one year, Rico surely has made a name for himself in the jazz world. I’m here to interview him to find out how this tsunami of change all happened—from “busking” as a street performer in front of the Apple store to playing with jazz luminaries.
Rico, what made you decide to move to NYC from Denver to try to make it in the Jazz Scene?
RJ: There’s a legendary status about artists who’ve made it in New York, which was certainly part of the allure. I also had this teacher, a tenor player named Adam Larson, that I studied with who happened to go to the Manhattan School of Music where I later chose to get my schooling. So many great musicians I admire like John Coltrane, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Jackie McLean made it in NYC.
How did you learn how to improvise so well over complex changes?
RJ: You have to be willing to get up on the bike and fall on your ass. Literally! Do it over and over. I recorded myself and monitored my progress. To play great improvised music, IMO you can’t question anything. Know the key at best and simply listen and use your ear and intuition. Keep doing it!
How did you meet Sylvia Cuenca and end up in her band? Those are some heavy shoes to fill since she played in legendary saxophonist Joe Henderson’s band for 17 years. Were you “discovered” playing on the street?
RJ: No. A lot of the opportunities I benefited from came from reaching out to people. I reached out to the person who introduced me to Sylvia, a pianist named David Kikoski. David referred me for a gig at this place Cellar Dog (formerly Fat Cat) with David on piano, Essiet Essiet on bass, and Sylvia on drums. Sylvia gave me a list of standards and obscure originals she wanted to do. I did the best I could to come prepared, and fortunately she liked my playing.
What’s the best advice you’d give to young jazz musicians who want to break onto the scene today?
RJ: Don’t connect your intellectual and creative self-worth to your popularity. One should be thankful if this is granted to them, but it’s not always reflective of the good work you’re doing. Immerse yourself in the craft. Above all, be kind and amenable to the people you work with.
This is marvelous advice for anyone. It’s no wonder Rico is living his dream. To get the full experience, watch my complete interview with Rico Jones on YouTube.
Rico Jones’ Upcoming Dates
Sylvia Cuenca Group 2023.jazz.org/sylvia-cuenca-group
Kaju Roberto is an accomplished musician, singer/ songwriter, journalist, and an award winning producer. He is the artist Rad Jet on Spotify.