WESTERLY — Wearing his signature black beret, Greg Piccolo stood in the center of the dance floor at the Knickerbocker Café one afternoon last week, holding a tenor saxophone so smoothly worn it gave off a warm glow.
“This is where I’m going to be,” said the musician, beloved and admired by blues fans. “I’m going to be playing right here — in the round.”
Piccolo, who’s been playing his soulful, bluesy sounds for more than a half century, will release a new album this week. His first in 18 years.
On Friday night, Piccolo, who played with the now legendary jump blues band Roomful of Blues for 24 years, will release “Who Did This?” his new CD, which features eight songs, including familiar ballads, and one of his own creation, at the Knickerbocker Music Center, the same place he recorded the CD.
“I’m so happy to have the CD debut at the Knick,” said Piccolo, who has played at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Bottom Line during his storied career. “It’s where I started and where I still am.”
“Who Did This?” also includes Sinichi Otsu on organ and bass, and Bobby Ruggiero, who played with Van Morrison for 13 years, on drums. Piccolo produced the album, and his daughter, artist Alicia Piccolo, did the album art and the design.
Songs include “Spring Can Really Hang You up the Most”; “Robin’s Nest”; “I Got it Bad, and That Ain’t Good”; “Please Send me Someone to Love”; “My One and Only Love”; “Mack the Knife” and Piccolo’s original, “Who Did This?”
“I love the whole thing,” said Piccolo who plays regularly at the Steak Loft in Mystic. “It’s upbeat and up tempo.”
Piccolo created his own label, called SwankTone, so he could control the project.
“I could do whatever I wanted,” he said with a laugh, “but I also had a learning curve.”
Piccolo said he plans to play all the songs on the album during the first set, then hang around to talk about the music and the process afterwards.
“I always wanted to make a ballad,” said the musician, who has shared the stage with Jimmie Vaughan and Colin James. “Ballads are part of what I am.”
Piccolo was born in Westerly, one of four children of the late Joseph and Cam Piccolo. He attended the Stonington schools and graduated from Stonington High School in 1969. His father, who served in World War II, played the harmonica, and music was part of the Piccolo household.
“I wasn’t really interested in the harmonica … my parents got me a clarinet but I knew I wanted the sax.”
He started with an alto sax. It would be years before he claimed the tenor sax as his true instrument.
“I started my first band when I was 13,” said Piccolo, who remembers, as a child, jumping up and down on his parents’ bed, along with his sister, while tunes played from the family “hi-fi.” “It was called the Rejects and we played at the Canteen at the Y a lot. We lasted a year.”
It was while he was playing at the Y that Piccolo experienced what he calls “a defining moment” in his life.
“I met Duke Robillard,” said Piccolo. “He had just moved into town … and he came up to me and asked me who I was listening to. He asked me if I’d ever heard of Chuck Berry … or Muddy Waters.”
Those were the days when everyone was listening to the Beatles and the Stones and the Animals, Piccolo said, but few music lovers realized that the inspiration for those bands came from the music of Berry and Waters and others. His eyes were opened, he said.
Soon after, Duke invited him to play in his band, The Variations, and Piccolo began to experience what it was like to play the folksy, bluesy sound Duke was experimenting with.
“It didn’t matter what he did, he was great,” he said. “Duke’s never changed, he’s always been great.”
Then came Greg and the Groupe, a band he formed with Al Copley, Eddie Parnigoni, Chuck Riggs and Buzz Goodwin.
“We played at all the high school dances, and at the COMO,” he said. “We did covers by people they knew but we’d add music from people they hadn’t heard before, like the Kinks, Waterloo, or something from Laura Nyro like “Poverty Train,” or something from the Animals.”
“The Animals and Eric Burdon were big for me,” said Piccolo. “Burdon still is. He was always playing great music … music that made me feel better, that made me feel like there was hope for the world.”
When he was 19, Piccolo said, “I just wanted to play with Duke and I didn’t care about anything else.”
“That’s when I really started in on tenor sax,” he said. “Duke made it happen.”
“We loved being on stage,” he said, “we were doing what we loved and we played anywhere we could.”
“We were so immersed from that point on, we’d work 300 nights a year,” he added.
“It was a good time of life,” he said with a laugh. “We ruled the roost back in those days.”
Influenced by the sound of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson — he heard him play at the Ann Arbor Blues festival and was inspired — Duke wanted more horns. Rich Lataille on alto and tenor sax joined Roomful around the same time Piccolo returned, and baritone player Doug James came on board the following year, giving birth to the now legendary Roomful of Blues horn section.
“It was how we became who we were and are,” said Piccolo. “I like to say, ‘I can’t be what I’m not, but I can what I am.’”
Piccolo’s wife, wife, Patty died in 2002, an event, he said, that “took the wind out of my sails.”
“But this is about the present,” said Piccolo. He plays the Sunday brunch at Ocean House, and recently jammed there with Jon Batiste of “The Tonight Show” with Stephen Colbert fame. “I’ve spent 25 years with Heavy Juice and I knew if I wanted to be known for my songwriting … I figured it was time.”
“Every now and then, the circle rolls around and you’re right back at the beginning,” he said.
“I used to ask myself a question,” he said, “I’d say, ‘If you get to be 60 years old and you find out that you’ve wasted this whole time, will you be happy?”
“I think I made the right choice,” said Piccolo, who lives in North Stonington with his companion, Julia Rockett.
The release party for “Who Did This,” will take place Friday at 8 p.m. Visit gregpiccolo.com for more information, and to hear selections of the CD.