Skip Heller's Aural American Landscape
A number of years ago, Philadelphia cum Los Angeles guitarist Skip Heller released Homegoing, which included his organ trio treatment of the funeral march from Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Around this same time pianist and fellow Philadelphia-native Uri Caine was having his own jazz considerations on Mahler (Gustav Mahler In Toblach: I Went Out This Morning Over The Countryside). This prompted me to call Heller "the West coast Uri Caine," the two being longtime friends. Some years later, I mentioned the comparison to Heller and he remarked that he and Caine had well since parted stylistic company. How true.
Heller has been thinking carefully about the American landscape, literally and metaphysically. On his recent release Mean Things Happening In This Land, he began a spiritual American journey, attacking the political animus of the past several years directly. His global invention on the record is as well constructed as any of his solos. So, it begs the question as to where Heller is going to go from there, considering that he is so abundantly talented and musically pantheistic. The answers begin to emerge with two new releases: San Fernando Valley and Along The Anchor Line - The Skip Heller Trio At Sun.
San Fernando Valley
Like most Heller recordings, San Fernando Valley is about as different from his previous output as can be. He emerges from the chute with an almost surf-styled original, "Cumbia Griego, that, for lack of a better term rocks, as does "DBA Stomp, which sports some great "Sing, Sing, Sing drumming from LA mainstay DJ Bonebreak. Bonebreak's presence inspires Heller, fully filling out his trio sound. The group covers David Bowie's "Life On Mars as a lush, precise ballad, and Keith Jarrett's "Diatibe as an angst-ridden flow where Newt Johnson's organ playing strongly recalls Gregg Allman. Never far from Heller's universe is the "Bakersfield sound" pioneered by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard: the guitarist proves his country bona fides with Bob Morris' vehicle for Buck Owens, "Buckaroo.
Heller possesses a guitar playing style that truly defies description and comparisonbut that won't stop me trying. His attack is melody driven, even in solos. While he can play with impressive velocity, he rarely shows off, instead carefully choosing his notes. Writer Kevin Whitehead likens Thelonious Monk's piano style as the skeleton of Art Tatum's piano style. Heller's guitar style is spare, skeletal and elementallean, like the guitarist. While he has many influences it is hard to find a comparison guitarist for whom Heller's style is a distillation. I suspect that is called "perfectly unique. Heller's playing, whether single note or as chordal accompaniment, is immediately understandable. Listeners, whatever their degree of musical education, know where Heller is going. That is his genius.
Along The Anchor Line - The Skip Heller Trio At Sun
Skip Heller and his trio made a stop at The Arkansas CD & Record Exchange in North Little Rock en route to Memphis to record this very disc. The title piece, a Heller original, was composed to capture musical elements of America's interior. It is too simple to say that it has a country flavor because of the overall complexity of the song. Heller's playing on "Anchor Line evokes a span of guitarists including Jerry Reed, Robbie Robertson, Wes Montgomery, and Bob Weir. But that is getting ahead of things.
Heller employs clarinetist Robert Drasin on the disc opener, a medley of WC Handy's "St. Louis Blues and "Mr. Crump Don't Like It. Characteristic of Heller's practice of finding and performing the most obscure of music, "Mr. Crump Don't Like It is a Handy piece originally written for Edward Hull "Boss Crump's mayoral campaign in Memphis in the early 20th Century. Heller does jazz things up on the John Hartford composition "Down and remains regional with Tony Joe White's "I've Got A Thing About You Baby, which is given a laid-back, humid vocal interpretation by Lisa Christian with support by Jim Cavender. Heller covers the Ralph Stanley spiritual "Angel Band and includes a rare Charlie Rich tune in "Redman.
Heller's choice of a basic organ-guitar jazz trio as the vehicle for performing so many different styles of music may seem somewhat confining, but in practice is anything but. The combo proves very functional, with organist Newt Johnson and drummer David White proving as musically omnivorous as Heller. Along The Anchor Line is Heller's most tightly focused and integrated recording to date. I hesitate to call this recording his masterpiece as I have been proven hasty with that judgement beforeand I expect to be again as he continues his journey into the heart of America.
Tracks and Personnel
San Fernando Valley
Tracks: Cumbia Griego; DBA Stomp; Life On Mars; Diatribe; Sally Are You Not Ashamed; Buckaroo; The Collector.
Personnel: Skip Heller: guitar; Newt Johnson: organ; DJ Bonebreak: drums.