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Skip Heller: Inviting You In to his Musical World

By Published: February 21, 2003

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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