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Skip Heller: Inviting You In to his Musical World

By Published: February 21, 2003

'There's a John Hartford album called Aereo-Plain. It was the Bill Evans/LaFaro trio of bluegrass groups. The improvising was so completely interactive, you couldn't tell who was soloing. But it was right. I was 11 or 12 when I heard that record and I was like, 'That's what I'm after.' If you hear the right thing. You just know. It's not that you're smart or anything. You just know. That was the first time I'd heard anyone improvising in a group that was that woven together. And then the Joni Mitchell record was the same thing.'

Heller also soaked in the Dead Kennedys and other punk rock. He kept his mind open. 'I was, as much as anything a product of the time. I would love to take credit for my own development,' he chuckled, 'but it's all these happy accidents.' He's self taught, for the most part, but credits a lot of musicians along the way, particularly in Philly ' people like the aforementioned Allen and Uri Caine, the pianist whose career is getting notice on jazz music's major stage. And Bert Payne, a guitarist from the early age, who worked with Louis Jordan and other notables and whose sound enthralls Heller. There was a certain general ambiance on the Philadelphia music scene that helped clear away some of the brush on his musical development path.

'Just being on the bandstand with really good guys who were so generous with their knowledge and experience' was helpful, Heller said. 'They would teach all the practical stuff, like: If you can't afford to hire a baritone player, the lower third of the saxophone sounds really good down there. You can get that same kind of a bump if you just write the quarter notes real short. The day-to-day technical stuff. You got that kind of advice. Always pack your uniform on top. Don't get drunk before you get paid — that's a good one. These were the pieces of advice from the guys who had really earned their positions as the guys you could count on in Philadelphia.

For example: 'You always knew you could call Benny Nelson, and the bass chair was covered. He might not have been Ron Carter in the soloing department, but he knew every tune, and his equipment always worked. And he would show up. And he was dressed right for the gig, and he would play right for the gig, and he didn't get drunk on the gig. These were good role models for a 17-year-old guy, especially when you're trying to look cool. You know Benny's cool cause Benny works all the time. Uri Caine looks cool. Cause there were guys who were like: terrific player, but you can't use him because by the third set, he's gone. There's a lot of that. That was the sum total of my musical training. Those guys.'

The town's organ trio influence weighs heavy as well. Heller said that format 'is the ultimate challenge' for a guitarist, and it's a direction he's going to follow for a while. 'It's a pretty deep resource and I haven't tapped much of it.'

Heller adds different colors to the trio sound, however. Horns here and there. Stylistic changes. It's not so much a broad brush he paints with, it's that he doesn't mind dipping the brush in different colors, and maybe he doesn't always clean it off before he immersing it into the next hue. He doesn't get bugged about how it might look to some purist. And it doesn't mean he's trying to out-hip anyone, or come off as complex. Quite the contrary.

'A lot of the stuff is more complicated than it sounds. The whole secret is to get your band to play that stuff so off handedly, that nobody seems sits there going, 'There they are being technical. That's a lot of notes. Thank you very much. You can play faster than I can Mr. DiMeola.' You don't want that kind of thing. You don't want to give someone music appreciation class. That's not what bars are for. You've got to get to the point with your band that they can play that stuff so naturally. The perfect example of this is the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Go back to the quartet with Joe Morello, Gene Wright and Paul Desmond. Nobody was doing what they were doing. You didn't really have many instances of 5/4 in jazz. He had to find a way to make that band sound like all he ever did was that. It was so natural. He told me this one time: Everybody said, 'Dave, your nuts. You can't put out an album of stuff like that. You can't put out an album of all original music with stuff like that. And for chrissake, don't put a painting on the cover.'

'That was one of the things they battled Dave on was he wanted a painting on the cover ( Time Out ). The group played that music so naturally, so fluently, that when we hear 'Blue Rondo' or 'Take Five' or 'Three to Get Ready' it doesn't seem foreign or unnatural to us. Because the playing of it was so completely natural,' Heller said with reverence and enthusiasm.

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