No matter how adept they are at finding the place where rock energy and jazz harmony meets, fusion guitarists almost invariably favor one side of the equation. As raw and visceral as John McLaughlin and John Scofield can be, jazz remains the core of who they are, just as Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana are rockers at heart, despite occasionally turning to more jazz-centric material. Which makes Jimmy Herring all the rarer a guitarist sitting right in the middle, possessing all the unabashed power and edge of rock, but perfectly balanced with greater harmonic sophistication and rhythmic concepts. Well-known on the jamband scene for his work with The Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule and Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh, as well as his longstanding stint as lead guitarist for Widespread Panic, Lifeboat is Herring's long overdue debut as a leader, and was clearly worth the wait.
Kicking off with the up-tempo "Scapegoat Blues," Herring's knotty theme is reminiscent of Tribal Tech at its best, around the time of its eponymous 1991 release when the group best balanced strong soloing with equally potent writing. Herring's core trioAllman Bros. alum/bassist Oteil Burbridge and drummer Jeff Sipe (heard recently on the superb Improvision (Abstract Logix, 2007), with guitar wunderkind Alex Machacek and bassist Matt Garrison)provide chemistry and consistency throughout, not to mention stylistic flexibility that will surprise those unfamiliar with these outstanding players. The trio push and pull each other on tunes ranging from Herring's rock ballad "Lifeboat Serenade," a spotlight for slide guitarist Derek Trucks in one of two guest appearances, to a closer-to-the-center look at Wayne Shorter's "Lost," featuring pianist/flautist Kofi Burbridge and saxophonist Greg Osby (who appears on four other tracks), making Lifeboat richly rewarding record of great depth and versatility.
With Herring's largely overdriven tonereminiscent of Allan Holdsworth, but with greater bite and finer balance between long legato lines and staggeringly fast-picked runsthere's no denying Lifeboat is a fusion record, but one that challenges its very definition. Virtuosic soloing on the deeply funky "One Strut" and brooding but equally backbeat-driven "New Moon" is sure to attract fusion fans. But the Blue Note references of "Lost," Herring's dark-hued and cleaner-toned "Gray Day" and the strong modal approach of both Herring and Kofi Burbridge on the pianist's bright, Latin-esque closer, "Splash," will also appeal to those for whom greater reverence for the jazz tradition is important.
Herring's ability to confidently mix things up while playing with a refreshing honesty and lack of posturing throughout makes Lifeboat as rare a fusion record as he is a fusion guitarist. An equally capable writerand a fine arranger, with his rework of George Bruns' "Jungle Book Overture" to the 1967 Disney movie of the same name an astute capture of its essential themes, distilled into a small group (albeit heavily overdubbed) contextLifeboat may have been nearly a lifetime in the making. With a result this good, hopefully Herring won't wait quite so long to make another.
Track Listing: Scapegoat Blues; Only When It's Light; New Moon; Lifeboat Serenade; One Strut; Jungle Book
Overture; Lost; Transients; Gray Day; Splash.
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).