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Skip Heller: Inviting You In to his Musical World

By Published: February 21, 2003

'As long as you really have something worth saying, you can say it real good. Maybe you don't have all those Mahavishnu notes in it, but that doesn't mean you don't have the right to speak. The way a lot of my compositions work is: There's no hard and fast law that says it has to be about the melody.

'The first thing I learned when I started writing my own compositions was that sometimes you don't need to go from A to B to C to D. Maybe just A will get your point across. Maybe just develop A, that germ of a feeling, rather than trying to make a whole formal structure because the law says you have to go from A to B to C to D. Sometimes, that one little kernel of information will really get your point across. That evil chord! Boom! Don't digress from that and people will get your point,' he said.

'Some of the compositions are almost like a medley of fragments,' he said. ''Something for Rahsaan That Rahsaan Said' (on Career Suicide ) is basically me taking three different feelings that I get from Rahsaan Roland Kirk and instead of saying I'm going to develop each of these feelings, the first part is the humor part ' quirky, almost cartoon thing. Because the first time I heard Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I really didn't have much experience with jazz, and the first thing I heard was his 'Sweet Georgia Brown' and it sounded like a jazz cartoon. Then we go into the part where I quote 'Out of Nowhere' and it gets kind of weird. That's Historical Rahsaan, who would be on the bandstand delivering lectures about Sidney Bechet and Fats Waller. And then the end of it, hammering away on G-natural, that's like Rhythmic Rahsaan. Because one of the things that's really great about Rahsaan's playing is it's so totally rhythmic. The guy was really a rhythm section.'

'The whole thing's done in four minutes. Hopefully I got my point across. I don't want to be Mr. Short Attention Span Theater. But one of the reasons why we celebrate Sketches of Spain so much is because it's one of the only things locked into a concept like that that stays interesting for 50 minutes. If you don't have 50 minutes of stuff to say, talk for 5 and get the hell out of there.'

It's almost as though he's a bit hyper and wants to get on to the next thing anyway. Heller has broad tastes and isn't done savoring what there is to savor in music. It started early in his life, as a kid wanting to know more, and was boosted along by the variety of music that was available in his home town, and also in the United States. Not just on the radio, but on television.

'It had a lot to do with what was on TV at the time. John Hartford on the 'The Smothers Brothers Show.' That was right there. 'Hmm. That's what that thing on the black plastic circle looks like. Looks great! It really did. I was 3 or 4 years old when the decision came in my mind, 'Yep. That's what I want to do.' So between John Hartford on 'The Smothers Brothers Show,' and then, believe it or not, the theme from 'The Beverly Hillbillies.''

'I went through trying to play these bluegrass songs. That led me into country songs. It led me eventually to blues. Once you start getting into blues, you're approaching the whole palette of American music. There's no good American music that doesn't have a foot somewhere in the blues. I know that's a broad statement, but if anyone doesn't agree with me, then they've probably got a white sheet over their head and they're burning a cross at BB King's house,' he says in his inimitable fashion. 'Seriously. Think of some kind of great American music that doesn't have some kind of close connection to the blues. Can't do it. Who'd want to?'

Heller played acoustic guitar early on, which during those years meant some blues and some folk. 'I started out listening to Mississippi John Hurt, one of the first guys I got near. Because his stuff was easier to play. I was specifically looking for things I could play. Then it was Mississippi John Hurt, up to Rev. Gary Davis and all these guys. Eventually, you will wind up with Louis Jordan. From Louis Jordan to Mose Allison is not a big major step. They're next-door neighbors. They're both out to lunch eating at the same place.

'In the course of fostering these various interests, I'm 13 or 14 trying to play this acoustic guitar music. And one of the most interesting acoustic guitar players is Joni Mitchell. So I started buying Joni Mitchell records. Another interesting early record for me, in terms of craning my head toward jazz, was the Mingus album. It's a fantastically interactive record. You can really hear Herbie [Hancock] bouncing off of Wayne [Shorter], bouncing off of Peter Erskine, and everything bounces off of Jaco [Pastorius]. Wow!

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