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Skip Heller: Inviting You In to his Musical World

By Published: February 21, 2003

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.

Where do you start with Skip Heller, a self-taught guitarist, composer, arranger who's been playing bars and clubs since his high school days, everything from blues to rock to rockabilly to bluegrass to folk and on and on. He knows Mahler and Dave Douglas. He knows Louis Jordan and Henry Mancini. He may be the world's biggest Mose Allison fan and at the same time he digs the attitude punk rock brought to music.

He's scored music for cartoons like The Flintstones and Dexter's Laboratory , and scored movie soundtracks. Not sappy bullshit starring Julia Roberts, but films like A Man is Mostly Water and Jane White is Sick and Twisted.

Heller's got style, though it's hard to describe. He's a remarkable, yet offbeat, raconteur with a voracious appetite for music and an uncanny memory for recordings ' and I mean tons of them ' he's listened to over his 37 years and the people who made them. He knows writings by and about musicians too. It's evident these things still excite him today, even if it's something he first heard or read about a long time ago.

Mose. David Bromberg. Sun Ra. Bill Evans. Cannonball Adderley. Paul Desmond. Jon Hartford. Tal Farlow. Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Coleman Hawkins. Joni Mitchell, Earl Scruggs. These are all musicians that Heller digs, and there are many more. He's influenced by movie scores and Carl Stallings, who penned the music for the Looney Toons animated classics.

Name another person who's recorded the music behind The Roadrunner cartoons and listened to it for pleasure on its own merits, enjoying its idiosyncratic content. And name another person who played a weeklong gig as guitarist with NRBQ, and after the last set jumped on an airplane to get back home just in time for a wedding' His own!

This is a man who enjoys making music and mulling it around. He's intelligent, articulate, funny, quirky, and also generous of spirit. He's highly expressive in a style that's'well' that's Skip Heller.

So what's the deal with this Philadelphia native? Well, he's a jazz musician, he avows, with an undying love for the blues, and inexhaustible curiosity for the new and a humble respect for the old. Check out his new CD and it will give you a taste of all his various musical influences from his home town, hence the title Homegoing . From 'The Night Before' his takeoff on The Beatles with its smooth, intricate, horns and clean and tasty guitar, to NRBQ's 'Thinking of You' done in a satin-smooth, guitar-over-organ groove. There's crooning ('Time After Time') and swingin' ('I Just Keep Lovin' Her').

'I didn't grow up playing jazz. It was my own progress. This kid that got interested in improvising from bluegrass music. Don't ask me how a kid from Philadelphia points to bluegrass music as a first thing. It had a lot to do with what was on TV at the time,' he said.

The basis of the new CD is the organ trio, which Heller is going to keep pursuing for a time (though he was soon to be off to record a duet album with fellow Philadelphian Heath Allen, a respected pianist and longtime friend). 'Philadelphia is almost completely stereotyped — rightly so too, when you think about it — as B-3 country. I've never gotten past being from Philadelphia. No matter where I go. No matter where I've live, I will always be a product of Philadelphia. So I wanted to kind of go back and say 'What's the sound of jazz in Philadelphia?' Boom. It goes right to the organ trio. Because that was around, that's where the jam sessions were. And the other thing is when you think of the classic Philadelphia jazz records, so much of it is B-3. Pat Martino with Trudy Pitts. Right there. Up to and including Joey DeFrancesco. I didn't have to go on a deep research project for that one. When I decided I wanted to put together my own trio, the instrumentation automatically in my head was drums, organ, guitar.'

Heller doesn't consider himself a virtuoso player. You don't get Joe Pass, and that's fine. You get Joe Pass from Joe Pass.

He described his sound once as '1952 jazz guitar played-on-a-rhythm-and-blues-album tone.'

'I'm still trying to play one thing as good as the first time I heard Charlie Christian,' he said another time. But Heller can get around on the guitar. His melodicism is sweet and his sound is rich. He's a thinker, and modesty aside ('I hate guys who are talented, I really do. I have to work for every inch of ground' he quipped at one point) his playing is hip. Besides, when you hear his band and his music, it's not Mr. Guitar with Sidemen. It's the sum of the parts. It's the feeling. It's a certain thought being conveyed on this song. Another feeling on that song. Or feelings can shift within the same overall structure. Virtuosity is not the end.

'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!

'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.

Another thing Heller pays attention to is the audience. He doesn't feel the need to stand above them, but among them. He doesn't want the younger crowd to just peek in the jazz door. He wants them push the door open a bit wider, then realize they're welcome inside' and that it's OK. That's an accomplishment not lost on this guitarist.

'I don't see where congeniality needs to be separated from jazz. Think about it. All the words used to describe the greatest jazz musicians are spiritual, introspective, dark, moody. No wonder Les McCann doesn't get respect. He's congenial. He gets people into it. They're not witnessing somebody's discovery, they're hearing music, reacting to music. Some guy that's worked 40 hours doesn't want to go to a bar, pay an enormous amount of money for two Heinekens for what amounts to witnessing the evolution of somebody else's introspective expression. The whole point of doing art,' he said, now quoting Art Blakey, 'is to blow the dust off of everyday life.'

'Art Blakey didn't play for the guys on the bandstand, he played for the people in the seats. All this stuff about who's playing the hip shit. That's musician dick waving. Come on, man, these people don't want to pay for your arrogance. They want to hear some music. They want to be moved. Your relationship with music is a lot like your relationship with people. I wouldn't want to hang out with someone who doesn't have a sense of humor. I like mischievous people. I want a humor quotient in my human relationships. I certainly want it in my music.'

That's why Heller appreciates people like Dianna Krall ('the Dave Brubeck of her generation') for bringing people into the music with talent, intelligence and warmth, even though she gets grief from some jazz purists. 'She's great for jazz,' he said, noting that she is also great for women in jazz. She brings people to the music and that can only be helpful, he said, recounting his own experience: If not for Mose Allison, Heller might not have been able to progress to appreciating things like Miles' Bitches Brew. Mose drew him to the music in a simple fashion, 'very clear, very understandable.'

'Young people are coming to the music,' he said, via musicians like Krall, or jam bands like Medeski, Martin & Wood, and that bodes well for the future. 'Is this gonna be, 'Get away kid, you bother me?' or it this gonna be 'Welcome to this music. Come to this music. This music will make your life better. It'll make your analytical skills better. It will get you around some smarter people than the guys over there at that Journey concert,' he said with a chuckle.

'The best reason for getting into jazz is because jazz will make your life better. The more the merrier. How are these people ' the new Dave Brubecks ' going to deal with it? I really would like to see the old thing of like, 'I'm too deep to deal with my audience' scrubbed away from the program.'

Heller's music, with its underlying relaxed feel in spite of its diversity and scrupulous execution, shows those kinds of qualities. It's not going to club you over the head with complexity, even though there is so much intelligence in its making. The same goes for Heller himself. He's an extremely bright guy, but rest assured you can belly up to the bar and quaff a beer with him while he sips his mineral water and shares his down-to-earth, yet arresting take on life and music.

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