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Eight Questions for Skip Heller

By Published: March 12, 2004

I?ve always been under the impression that the idea of playing music for people was to communicate an idea or a mood to them. —Skip Heller's Philosophy of Performing

Skip Heller looks like the love child Charlie Sheen, Lenny Bruce, and the young Art Pepper. He is tall and thin (Mr. Heller is a runner) with a plume of dark hair that would appear more comfortable on the mid-1950s streets of his native Philadelphia than the sunny climes of Southern California. The music he makes has just as diverse as the pedigree of his appearance. February saw the release of his newest recording, Fakebook , on Joel Dorn's imprint, Hyena Records. In every way, this was a professional match made in heaven. Having been All About Jazz's standard bearer for Mr. Heller, the good fortune to interview the artist fell to me.

First, a couple of facts and observations about our subject: Fred Steven Heller was born in Philadelphia, October 4, 1965, the same day the late Johnny Cash was arrested for smuggling amphetamines across the border of Mexico. He grew up in what can only be described as the seething cauldron Philly Music. One of his first exposures to music was seeing John Hartford on the Smothers Brother's show. He failed in his piano lessons while becoming a site-read-at-speed guitarist. Since then, Mr. Heller has composed film music, been a producer, and managed to squeeze out eleven recordings under is own name. Mr. Heller's entry in The All Music Guide is longer than two of his greatest personal inspirations, Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Uri Caine, not to mention Dave Douglas, John Zorn, Eric Dolphy, and Gene Ammons.

Second, a couple of facts about the interview: No decent interview can be conducted without the proper recording equipment. Mr. Heller and I spoke for a total of five hours. I did not get a word on tape, and that is a damn shame. Perhaps three hours of that was about music and the remainder was the really good stuff'the extra-musical material that lets you know what the artist is made of. I think it is safe to say that Skip Heller has the most fully musically integrated personality of anyone I have known. Everything he thinks of, every opinion he has'has a parallel in music that can readily be heard when he plays (or writes about music). Thus, I did not restrict my questions to music alone. It is about time that the readership discovers the treasure that is Skip Heller.

So, here are Eight Questions for Skip Heller'

1. What was the best book you read last year?

Baseball's Golden Age (Harry N. Abrams, Pub. 2003) by Neal McCabe. It's the baseball photos of Charles M. Conlon, who was active in the field of sports photography from 1904 through 1942. The photos themselves are just gems, and Neal's writing is really warm and human and smart and funny. Some of the stuff is really arcane'he gets into the first Amish player to make it in the big leagues'and at the end you get the sense of this whole other parallel world existing, which fascinates me.

2. What was the best movie you saw (in theaters or on DVD) last year?

I didn't go to the theaters much'which is ironic since I live about six blocks from Hollywood Boulevard'but two of my friends gave us a DVD player, so I started going nuts checking out DVDs of favorite movies, bonus footage and what have you. I found out about this guy named Sid Laverents, a 95-year-old amateur filmmaker who lives in Bonita, CA, and he's absolutely amazing. He's like the Les Paul of amateur film. He invented a whole lot of his own technology and techniques, and just has the most brilliant imagination. He has one film, Multiple Sidosis , that's the most incredible thing I've ever seen. It's the only amateur film in the Library Of Congress Film Registry.

3. What was the best music you heard last year?

Live, I'd say Jack Sheldon. He is certainly one of our very greatest living jazz musicians. I went to see him a bunch this year'since he lives and works here around Los Angeles. I admire him as much as anyone alive right now. He's the most beautiful, joyous improviser I've ever seen, and he never runs out of ideas. There's nobody better: counting Dave Douglas or Greg Osby'counting anyone alive now. I'd rate Jack right up there with Bill Frisell, Tania Maria, and Hank Jones. He's that individual and that beautiful.

My favorite recording of the last year was Tania Maria Live At The Blue Note (Concord Picante 2114, 2002). She grooves so hard, and her piano playing is really fantastic. She can make the most outside shit in the world sound totally inside, and she can make the most inside shit sound like it's out on the edge of the music. I'd love to meet her but I wouldn't know what to say.

4. In a recent conversation, we discussed the fact that some music 'gets off of the bandstand' and some does not. How do you get the music off of the bandstand?

I've always been under the impression that the idea of playing music for people was to communicate an idea or a mood to them. To get your idea across, you really have to deal with music as a language that the audience speaks. I've heard certain musicians'whose abilities I'd kill for' get so far into a variant of the language that's only spoken by musicians. The only people who speak that dialect are on the bandstand. The people who paid ten bucks to hear the band aren't really being included. The music never makes it out into the room where the audience is. It's just up there on the bandstand and it never gets out to the audience. You're playing in front of them, not to them.

When you play the music so it gets off the bandstand, so that the audience feels like they're being addressed and communicated to, they start sending some energy back up to the bandstand, and the band plays that energy back to the musicians, and that's when the magic stuff happens. The dialogue is between everyone in the whole place and not just the guys on stage trying to outdo one another.

5. What is you philosophy regarding playing 'standards?'

I've heard great musicians take standard songs and make them totally unrecognizable. If you walked in after the band had played the melody, you'd have no idea what the tune was. I mean, if you're that sick of 'Green Dolphin Street' that'immediately after stating the melody'you stay away from any reference to the tune that a member of the audience could trace, you're probably sick of playing 'Green Dolphin Street'. Why do you want an audience to sit through you playing music you're sick of?

Maybe you could play some other tunes. There are worlds of other tunes out there that are wonderful vehicles for playing jazz on. Tunes that haven't been played into the ground, but tunes that an audience can get inside of and that still have some blood in 'em for the players. And tunes that sit well with the tradition, which is a huge tradition that includes so many wonderful threads.

6. Relate the elements of what I call Skip Heller's 'Holy Trinity' of Louis Armstrong, John Hartford, and Merle Haggard (adding Benny Goodman as St. Peter)

Pops played music that'no matter how advanced'it included everyone who listened. 'Weather Bird' or 'West End Blues' were really seriously progressive performances, and still are. He's totally out on the edge of the music'even more than Bird or Trane would be, because Pops pretty much invented the role of the jazz soloist. He also invented the means by which that role was to be fulfilled, which we're still living by'but what he's playing never sounds like some intellectual trying to be 'outside', even though all this chromaticism is being introduced and rhythms are being displaced. He takes everyone out to that edge with him. It's non-elitist innovation.

There's that part at the end of the movie Office Space where the evil corporate headquarters burns down, and the music has to indicate that the clouds have lifted and happiness is once again in the hands of the little guy. So what music do they choose? Pops''All That Meat And No Potatoes' from Satch Plays Fats'The Music of Fats Waller. Whenever you want the sound of everything that ever personified the love for mankind, you go to Pops or Big Joe Turner.

John Hartford was very similar to Louis Armstrong. His humor was more overt, but he was a brilliant improviser, full of drive and ideas, kind of the Sonny Rollins of bluegrass. His album AEREO PLAIN was the first album I ever had where I really noticed interactive improvising. It wasn't just about solos. It was about empathy and response in the ensemble. I'm lucky I heard that when I was young. It gave me a good value system early on. Plus, Vassar Clement's fiddle solos on the record had a jazz attitude about them, and I think his playing really helped open my ear to that.

As for Hag'aside from his being probably our greatest pure country singer and songwriter'I always loved the dignity he afforded the people that he sang about and the respect he gave his audience. His songs were about guys in my family's income bracket' like that depicted in the TV show Roseanne. The Conners were a lot like my family. If the Darlene character had been a son and the Dan character (John Goodman) wasn't funny, that would be like my family. Merle Haggard's lyrics spoke about people and places that guys like my father knew up close, that my whole family knew up close. So to have songs that reflected that without romanticizing it out of proportion meant something to me. I wouldn't call these guys a trinity. I don't really unite them. However, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley is another story.

7. You once told me that you were a huge fan of the WNBA and that Los Angeles Women's Professions Basketball Team offered a great example or your own philosophy of performing.

Nikki Teasley, the point guard of the Los Angeles Sparks, made me understand the importance of going to work for your team. She can do anything'great ball-handling, impossible player to totally cover, can shoot three-pointers from across town if she has to'but the thing she takes the most pride in is her ability to set up another player for a perfect basket. It keeps the game fresh for everyone playing and watching. To me, someone like that is a perfect role model for anyone in an ensemble. She's unselfish, but she also knows how to step up. She is the Bill Evans of basketball. I got to shake her hand at a game last season, and I was just star-struck.

8. Your last three recordings, including the newly released Fakebook, are among the most exciting organ jazz recordings that I have recently heard. What organ jazz influenced you?

The original Wild Bill Davis Trio music on the old Okeh label was among the first organ jazz I warmed up to mostly because I loved Bill Jennings' guitar playing so much. That was the first organ trio in the sense that we use the term now. Bill Jennings' playing was as close to perfect as any I've ever heard. Also, Bill Davis really imposed a sense of arrangement on everything that band played, which gave that band a certain distinction. They really had a sound. It wasn't just blowing. I admired that. The other early organ combo I liked was Bill Doggett's group. They were more Rhythm & Blues, but had great arrangements.

There was a guy in Philly'Craig Baylor'who worked at Sound of Market Street, a record store in Philly. He's still there. He's kind of a legend for turning people onto the right records. He hipped me to Grant Green's Blues For Lou album, which was a trio record with Big John Patton and Ben Dixon. I really loved their chemistry, so any record with Grant and those two fellows is great for me. The Harold Vick album they're on together, Steppin' Out , hit me hard back then. Craig converted me in about 1984, when Grant was not exactly the height of fashion, so I bought all this stuff as French or Japanese imports. That rhythm section is still important in my heart.

Larry Young's Unity represented a big step for me, just to hear an organ band that wasn't blues based. That gave me a lot to think about. That album, plus the stuff that Larry did with Tony Williams and John McLaughlin did a lot to broaden the perception of organ jazz past the usual 'Back At the Chicken Shack' concept. John Abercrombie's records with Jan Hammer' especially Night 'and his recent albums with Dan Wall'especially Open Land 'really influenced me further in that direction. Not an organ band but a huge influence on the way I saw rhythm sections, space, and arranging in a small group: the Ahmad Jamal Trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier. The arrangement of 'Nika's Dowry' on Homegoing is not a coincidence.

So, that is it. Urbane, erudite, amiable, and opinionated: Skip Heller is a great teacher. I, for one, hope to hear much more from him. Skip, Thank you.

Visit Skip Heller on the web at .

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