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Eight Questions for Skip Heller

C. Michael Bailey By

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I?ve always been under the impression that the idea of playing music for people was to communicate an idea or a mood to them. —Skip Heller's Philosophy of Performing
Skip Heller looks like the love child Charlie Sheen, Lenny Bruce, and the young Art Pepper. He is tall and thin (Mr. Heller is a runner) with a plume of dark hair that would appear more comfortable on the mid-1950s streets of his native Philadelphia than the sunny climes of Southern California. The music he makes has just as diverse as the pedigree of his appearance. February saw the release of his newest recording, Fakebook , on Joel Dorn's imprint, Hyena Records. In every way, this was a professional match made in heaven. Having been All About Jazz's standard bearer for Mr. Heller, the good fortune to interview the artist fell to me.

First, a couple of facts and observations about our subject: Fred Steven Heller was born in Philadelphia, October 4, 1965, the same day the late Johnny Cash was arrested for smuggling amphetamines across the border of Mexico. He grew up in what can only be described as the seething cauldron Philly Music. One of his first exposures to music was seeing John Hartford on the Smothers Brother's show. He failed in his piano lessons while becoming a site-read-at-speed guitarist. Since then, Mr. Heller has composed film music, been a producer, and managed to squeeze out eleven recordings under is own name. Mr. Heller's entry in The All Music Guide is longer than two of his greatest personal inspirations, Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Uri Caine, not to mention Dave Douglas, John Zorn, Eric Dolphy, and Gene Ammons.

Second, a couple of facts about the interview: No decent interview can be conducted without the proper recording equipment. Mr. Heller and I spoke for a total of five hours. I did not get a word on tape, and that is a damn shame. Perhaps three hours of that was about music and the remainder was the really good stuff'the extra-musical material that lets you know what the artist is made of. I think it is safe to say that Skip Heller has the most fully musically integrated personality of anyone I have known. Everything he thinks of, every opinion he has'has a parallel in music that can readily be heard when he plays (or writes about music). Thus, I did not restrict my questions to music alone. It is about time that the readership discovers the treasure that is Skip Heller.

So, here are Eight Questions for Skip Heller'

1. What was the best book you read last year?

Baseball's Golden Age (Harry N. Abrams, Pub. 2003) by Neal McCabe. It's the baseball photos of Charles M. Conlon, who was active in the field of sports photography from 1904 through 1942. The photos themselves are just gems, and Neal's writing is really warm and human and smart and funny. Some of the stuff is really arcane'he gets into the first Amish player to make it in the big leagues'and at the end you get the sense of this whole other parallel world existing, which fascinates me.

2. What was the best movie you saw (in theaters or on DVD) last year?

I didn't go to the theaters much'which is ironic since I live about six blocks from Hollywood Boulevard'but two of my friends gave us a DVD player, so I started going nuts checking out DVDs of favorite movies, bonus footage and what have you. I found out about this guy named Sid Laverents, a 95-year-old amateur filmmaker who lives in Bonita, CA, and he's absolutely amazing. He's like the Les Paul of amateur film. He invented a whole lot of his own technology and techniques, and just has the most brilliant imagination. He has one film, Multiple Sidosis , that's the most incredible thing I've ever seen. It's the only amateur film in the Library Of Congress Film Registry.

3. What was the best music you heard last year?

Live, I'd say Jack Sheldon. He is certainly one of our very greatest living jazz musicians. I went to see him a bunch this year'since he lives and works here around Los Angeles. I admire him as much as anyone alive right now. He's the most beautiful, joyous improviser I've ever seen, and he never runs out of ideas. There's nobody better: counting Dave Douglas or Greg Osby'counting anyone alive now. I'd rate Jack right up there with Bill Frisell, Tania Maria, and Hank Jones. He's that individual and that beautiful.

My favorite recording of the last year was Tania Maria Live At The Blue Note (Concord Picante 2114, 2002). She grooves so hard, and her piano playing is really fantastic. She can make the most outside shit in the world sound totally inside, and she can make the most inside shit sound like it's out on the edge of the music. I'd love to meet her but I wouldn't know what to say.

4. In a recent conversation, we discussed the fact that some music 'gets off of the bandstand' and some does not. How do you get the music off of the bandstand?

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