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Talkin' Blues

Talkin' Blues with Jimmy Herring

By Published: December 27, 2011
AAJ: I was watching an interview with the classical composer Webster Young, and he was talking about the different types of musical ears. He was saying there are people with great technical ears, and people with great "evaluative" ears—those who have a special gift for finding the values in tones, he mentioned Tchaikovsky as an example. Of course, musicians are a combination of technical and evaluative gifts, but it got me to thinking about the blues vs jazz.

To me it seems guys like Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman were all about the sound and didn't give much thought to sophistication or complexity for complexity's sake. On the other hand, it seems that jazz players, of necessity, often have strong technical skills and ears, and their musical choices seek to balance "sound" with an attraction to complexity. To me, it seems that the balancing of head and heart makes playing the blues a challenge for them. I'm guessing you can identify with that?

JH: Oh God, yes, big time. When I first moved to Atlanta I was, as I said, really into Dixie Dregs, Mahavishnu, and Return to Forever, even though that music was old by the time I got into it. So when I got to Atlanta and started playing with Bruce Hampton, he wanted simplicity, and here's what really blew me away about it.

I was fixated on the technical end of it. If I couldn't get the right "sound" with the ambiance I was searching for around it, it locked me up—my right hand just wouldn't pick right. I couldn't deliver what needed to come out. So at first I began looking for the right amp and stuff, and Bruce was like, "Sound? Sound don't matter. If you play you'll find your sound. You gotta play. Forget about all the technique and just play."

He was right. We were playing a lot of what we called Bruce's greatest hits, basically covers. His versions of Bobby Bland songs and stuff like that. And what I discovered, and what ARU was into, the simpler the music is, the more you can take liberties with it. I'd been fixated on playing things just like the record, you know, being able to play those heads that John McLaughlin and Steve Morse had in their music—it was so hard just to play the melody. And I was so fixated on getting it note for note, that the improvisational part hadn't happened for me yet. But that all happened with Bruce.

He would have a song where we would just play on one chord. Of course I was also really into John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
, and I was into what he did later in life when he got away from all the chord changes, and just started playing over one chord. So I discovered all these different approaches he had to playing over just one chord—and a lot of people think that's when his sound really came to be. It's because you strip everything away, and all that's left is: you.

In a way, it's like playing blues. Basically, there are only five notes in a blues scale. Sometimes you add one or two notes around that, and some people think that makes it easier. Some people who aren't into the blues, think, "Anybody can play the blues scale." Well yeah, anybody can play the blues scale, but not just anybody can find a voice in those five notes. Like Albert King, he could make that thing sing. He found his voice own voice—if he played two notes you knew who it was.

So Oteil discovered the half step diminutive scale, and he started moving these chord shapes around. Like I'd be taking a solo over a chord thing in D minor on a Bruce Hampton song, and Oteil would start moving these chord shapes around my solo. At first I was like, "Uh oh, what's that?" And you could hear that motion of a half step, then a whole step, then a half step, then a whole step. They call it the diminished scale.

So once I discovered that scale, I realized it was symmetrical. If you learn to play it on one place on the neck, you can move it three frets higher—or, more specifically, you can move it a minor third in either direction—and play the same fingerings. That's not the same on a saxophone, or a piano—but that's one of the real advantages of a guitar. There are other disadvantages, but that's one of the advantages.

So you can play an idea, and then maybe move it up a minor third and change the phrasing a little bit and you're still in the same key with that diminished scale. So it ended up being that we would start out with the blues over this one chord vamp, and then the minute I would hear Oteil start to do those half steps / whole step motions with chord voicings, I knew I could fall into the diminished scale patterns. And then we would go back to the blues, and there was this ebb and flow. You know it wasn't something new, millions of people had done it before we discovered it, but it kind helped us find our own sound.

Of course saxophone players are famously the most adept at that type of approach. So we were really into Coltrane. As far as contemporary cats, Greg Osby just floored me, and Steve Coleman, they were into a lot things that were kind of like that. And Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
1949 - 2007
sax, tenor
, of course. So there were plenty of people to draw from, but mostly we were going back in time to get inspiration. We were really into Cannonball, Coltrane, and Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
1928 - 2008
sax, tenor

I've always envied saxophone players for their smooth flow, at least in the last 25 years. That's why Allan Holdsworth just really kills me, he's got that kind of flow like a saxophonist. You never hear the frets when he plays, not like he's playin' slide or something, you just never hear the frets. His lines just don't seem guitar-like. Obviously he was into saxophone players and people know that about him.

So I just love that, but guitar is a percussive instrument and it isn't conducive to that sound. It's hard, I focused on picking for so long, but then for me it became more about focusing on the flow. So back to Bruce, he wasn't into technical stuff; he hated it when we got too "note-ie," [laughing] although we did it anyway. But he was looking for more essence than anything else. He showed me a new way to look at things.

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