Jimmy Herring is widely considered to be one of the greatest electric guitarists in the world. Long years lighting up the music of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jazz is Dead, Project Z andin recent yearsthe Dead, Phil Lesh and Friends, and Widespread Panic have established his reputation as a guitarist with very few peers. Lifeboat, his first solo release, has plenty of electrifying playing from the man from North Carolina to be sure, but it is above all a showcase of his songwriting talents. Wisely perhaps, Herring has surrounded himself with old collaborators of many years standingthe rhythm section of Oteil Burbridge on bass and Jeff Sipe on drums has played with Herring on and off for two decadesand this brings a real group dynamic to the playing.
Herring exhibits the same seamless blend of jazz and blues-rock in his runs that characterises the playing of guitarists Jeff Beck or Jan Akkerman. The couple of pacy guitar solos which punctuate the opener, "Scapegoat Blues," are a case in point; it's a lively number, but if you thought this record was going to be a jam-based, million-miles-an-hour blow-out you'd be wrong. The most satisfying thing about Lifeboat lies in the strength of the compositions, the diversity of music and the emphasis on melody. As impressive as Herring's playing is, the saxophone of guest Greg Osby and the flute of Kofi Burbridge color the music almost as much as Herring's six strings.
The lovely guitar-led melody of "Only When It's Light" is enhanced by Burbridge's flute harmonizing. Herring takes a solo which stirs memories of Frank Zappa's more melodic guitar playing, and Burbridge's light and sweet flute intervention adds lustre to the tune. When not on piano, Burbridge's flute playing is a delight on this album, illuminating a number of songs with his warm, full-bodied organic sound and confident attack.
There's an Indian vibe to the slower "New Moon," courtesy of guest Derek Trucks' shimmering slide-guitar. His lines alternate with Herring's and the two dovetail nicely. Truck's slide also features to great effect on "Lifeboat Serenade," whose opening chords and melody sound a little like one of Pink Floyd founder member and singer/songwriter Syd Barrett's numbers. After Herring and Trucks trade tasty solos, Herring turns it up a notch and closes the number with a belting tour-de-force solo which underlines the fact that it his imagination as much as his technique which makes him such a formidable musician. If there is a poll somewhere for best guitar solo of the year then this would be a strong contendersee if you don't find yourself turning up the volume as the song and the solo teasingly fade all too soon.
A funk dynamic infuses "One Strut," in part thanks to electronic keyboards reminiscent of 1970s Stevie Wonder, and Herring peels off yet another totally absorbing solo. There is, however, a lot more to the music than soloing. The pace relents on the fascinating "Jungle Book Overture," originally composed by George Bruns, the jazz aficionado and trombonist who played in trombonist Jack Teagarden's band in the 1930s before becoming Walt Disney's main composer. A tango-ish vibe inhabits the piece as flute and guitar trace the melody together. Greg Osby contributes a delicate, inventive soprano solo which has a reedy clarinet feel to it. Burbridge's flute tantalizingly picks up from Osby, and Herring, in turn, once again shines. The same three-man front-line intertwine beautifully on "Lost," by the eternally inspirational saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
The album closes with the lively jazz number "Splash," which features unison playing and is dominated by a horn-like solo from Herring and notable statements by Burbridge on flute and Osby on alto sax. Perhaps "Gray Day" would have made a better closing remark. This number shows a more reflective side of Herring and carries his most extended workout on the albumhis bewitching playing, whether intended or not, sounds like a heartfelt tribute to the Grateful Dead's guitarist Jerry Garcia.
It's been a while coming, but Jimmy Herring's solo debut is a major achievement and will no doubt ride high in quite a number of best-of-2008 lists in jazz, rock, fusion and guitar periodicals alike. Let's hope Lifeboat is just the beginning of a long solo discography.
Tracks: Scapegoat Blues; Only When It's Light; New Moon; Lifeboat Serenade; One Strut; Jungle Book Overture; Lost; Transient; Gray Day; Splash.
Personnel: Jimmy Herring: guitars; Oteil Burbridge: bass; Jeff Sipe: drums; Kofi Burbridge: piano (2 - 10), flute, (2, 6, 7, 10); Greg Osby: soprano sax (6, 9), alto sax (7 - 10); Matt Slocum: keyboards (1), piano (3), electric piano (4), clavinet (5); Bobby Lee Rodgers: rhythm guitar (1), Leslie guitar (5); Scott Kinsey: organ (2); Derek Trucks: slide guitar (3, 4); Tyler Greenwell: drums (4); Ike Stubblefield: organ (4).
Personnel: Jimmy Herring: guitars; Oteil Burbridge: bass; Jeff Sipe (1-3, 5-10): drums; Matt Slocum:
keyboards (1), piano (3), electric piano (4), clavinet (5); Bobby Lee Rodgers: rhythm guitar (1),
Leslie guitar (5); Kofi Burbridge: piano (2, 6-10), flute (2, 6, 7, 10); Scott Kinsey: organ (2);
Derek Truck: slide guitar (3, 4); Tyler Greenwell: drums (4); Ike Stubblefield: organ (4); Greg
Osby: soprano saxophone (6, 9), alto saxophone (7-10).