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Veteran Guitarist Tom Rizzo Talks Life As A Session Player

Courtesy / Origin Records

Courtesy / Origin Records

As one of L.A.’s most sought-after studio musicians, guitarist Tom Rizzo has recorded and performed with Brian Wilson, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole and many others. Rizzo leads his own jazz trio and has recorded two critically acclaimed albums for Origin Records featuring impressive sidemen, including Peter Erskine and Bob Sheppard. A prolific composer, Rizzo has written music for hundreds of television episodes, including “In Living Color” and “The Wayans Brothers.”

It was Rizzo’s father who bought the young boy his first guitar, with the stipulation that he finish every exercise in the instruction book before he’d be able to take lessons. Rizzo mastered that book in one day and went to bed with bleeding fingers. It was that same father who insisted that he major in psychology rather than music in college. “You go to music school, I kill you. You go anywhere else I give you a big kiss,” is the way Rizzo remembers it. 

Upon graduation, Rizzo’s passion for the guitar led him to teach as well as to perform with many of the jazz greats who were faculty members of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Then at age 25, he hit the road with the Maynard Fergusson Big Band. That gig lead to a 10-year dream job as one of the youngest members of "The Tonight Show" Orchestra with Doc Severenson.

Since 1992, Rizzo has remained busy in the competitive world of a studio musician. “I don’t know, in the history of everything I’ve ever played on in the studios, if I’ve ever played one note of jazz. Ever!" he said. "And it’s what I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out how to do well. That’s not what the job is. That’s not what they’re paying me for.”

“When I was doing 'In Living Color,' the studio bosses said, 'We need you to write a cue, and we want the instrument to be the Jewish flute.' I couldn’t figure out what they meant, and I wanted to get it right, so I called up my friend Bob Sheppard, a great saxophone player," Rizzo recalled. "I said, 'Bob, what do you think it is?' He said, 'I bet they mean clarinet.' And I gave them the clarinet and they were thrilled and happy!”

When he’s not trying to guess what studio executives really want the music to sound like, Rizzo’s second passion revolves around the world of finance.

“Very early on in my musical career,” Rizzo said, “I wanted to learn how money works, how investing works, how if we were fortunate enough to make money, how we could put that money to work to be able to secure our financial future. So, I began furiously studying, and it became a second passion for me and I found I had a good head for it and I was capable of figuring out what to pay attention to in finance; I did deep research on what factors contribute to the success of a portfolio over the long term, how to avoid fees, how to make it very, very efficient.”

A lot of Rizzo’s musical colleagues heard what he was doing and began asking for his assistance. Rizzo soon realized he wasn’t going to be able to help many musicians until he was licensed. He returned to school, took the uniform investment advisor law exam, got a series 65 license, and formed his own company, called Plectrum Advisers.

Since then, Rizzo regularly reaches out to aspiring young music students with workshops geared primarily toward music schools.

“It’s a two-part presentation,” he said. "The first part of it we talk about investing and finance and how it works and try to educate the kids. What’s a mutual fund? How does it work? What’s an expense ratio? What’s asset allocation about?  How do you plan? You’re age 22 now, so that in 40 years when you’re age 62 you’re in good shape, and not have to worry. And then the second half of the presentation, we play a concert, usually with faculty jazz players. So, I get to do the two things that I have passion about and that is understanding finance and imparting that knowledge and then getting to play music on a very high level. I think the students are a little more receptive to the thing because it’s coming from someone who is speaking their language as a musician.” 


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