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Skip Heller's Long March To The Heart Of America

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Heller has also made efficient and appropriate use of his live journal to display projects in progress and musical items of interest.
Philadelphia favorite son and Los Angeles uber-musician Fred "Skip Heller has been busy since my sighting of him last October at the Arkansas CD & Record Exchange. He was then touring to promote Mean Things Are Happening In This Land, currently available as a digital download at Ropeadope Records. After the Arkansas junket, Heller and his working trio were heading for Memphis, Tennessee. Not just Memphis, Tennessee, but 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, home of Sun Studio—those fabled four walls that at one time rang with the voices of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The occasion was not lost on Heller, a veritable repository of musical history.

The results of the Memphis trip will be released as Along The Anchor Line through Ropeadope in April, complete with a 40-page book exploring music, the Mississippi river and the rich relationship between the two. The disc features Heller and his trio supplemented with Robert Drasin's clarinet on two pieces, and vocalist Lisa Christian on two pieces (including a hometown Staples Singers-styled arrangement of "Angel Band ). Jim Cavendar provides electric sitar on one piece, assisting Heller's quest to destroy all music classification, reducing the art to the two brands famously acknowledged by Duke Ellington: Good and Bad. Heller always produces the former.

Ever promiscuous with media, Heller provides a video account of his experiences at Sun Studio. The reader need only click on The Skip Heller Trio At Sun from the guitarist's live journal at his website. This is a beautifully lo-fi documentary with plenty of Heller banter as well as words from Christian and organist Newt Johnson. Drasin provides a grand clarinet soundtrack to the "St. Louis Blues/Mr. Crump Don't Like It.

Heller has also made efficient and appropriate use of his live journal to display projects in progress and musical items of interest. One of these is a sublime 30-minute mp3, Skip Heller and Bob Dorough Play Eric Spiegel. Here Heller and entertainment legend Bob Dorough perform seven pieces associated with their mutual friend, the late Philadelphia pianist/vocalist Eric Spiegel (1946-2006). Dorough, a native of Cherry Hill, Arkansas, along with Mose Allison, a Tippo, Mississippi native, are for me the two greatest jazz products of the rural South.

Dorough is famous to an entire generation of Americans as the composer and singer for the educational television show, Schoolhouse Rock, and perhaps his most famous song, "Consumption Junction. Included in this Spiegel recital is the Heller original "This Is For Eric, and Dorough's famous take on Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite. Add to this the Dorough/Heller treatments of "Better Than Anything, "I'm Beginning To See The Light, and the rare Vic Feldman tune "Haunted Ballroom and the listener is treated to music that can only be termed historic. Heller and Dorough, friends for the past 20 years, play with an empathy belaying that fact. Eighty-three years have done nothing but sharpen Dorough's piano and vocal chops, both of which he capably exercises. Heller's comping and solos add a refined bit of Left Coast perfection to Dorough's down home delivery.

Also available on Heller's online live journal is the duet recording Skip Heller and Heath Allen: The Night Is Not Yet Over, soon to be available as a digital download from Ropeadope. Heller recounts that he first met pianist and composer Allen in 1983, when Heller was 17 and gigging with Eric Spiegel locally in Philly. Heller was drawn to Allen's compositions and remained close friends with the pianist, even reissuing Allen's mid 1990s Red/Blue...Shift on his own Skyeway Records.

In the intervening two decades, Heller cherry-picked the Allen originals he wanted one day to record with the pianist, and the opportunity finally presented itself last year. The music is what the listener would expect Heller to be associated with, to say the least. Allen's compositions and piano playing are densely intelligent at the same time as they are immediately accessible. There are hints of Hebraic, American and European folk and classical idioms present, and everything is assembled with a craftsman's care.

Amid all of the above, Heller, organist Newt Johnson, and drummer DJ Bonebrake released the trio recording San Fernando Valley which is currently available on CD and will later be made available as a digital download from Ropeadope. Consisting of seven selections, San Fernando Valley further defines Heller's music as beyond definition. Anemic as this description may be, Skip Heller attempts, and largely succeeds in infusing Anericana into his music. His organ trio vehicle is an inventive one and his musical direction is as certain as the compass needle pointing North. In any event, it is that much more Skip Heller to enjoy. It has been an ambitious year for the ubiquitous Skip Heller, who continues to surprise, delight, and challenge us with his genius.


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