Heller High Water: Skip Heller Live in Little Rock

C. Michael Bailey By

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He's musically omnivorous, ingesting and assimilating all musical styles, distilling them as, for lack of a better label, 'Skip Heller Music.'
Skip Heller Trio
Arkansas Record/CD Exchange
North Little Rock, Arkansas
October 28, 2006

My favorite observation about Philadelphia cum Los Angeles guitarist Skip Heller is that his biography at All Music Guide is longer than any of his most personally admired musicians and influences, who include John Hartford,Dave Alvin of the Blasters, and Uri Caine, not to mention Dave Douglas, John Zorn, Eric Dolphy, and Gene Ammons.

Recently, great fortune smiled on my hometown as, between a gig in Tulsa, Oklahoma and a recording session at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, Heller and his organ trio stopped by for a leisurely afternoon performance at the North Little Rock musical landmark the Arkansas Record / CD Exchange, Bill and Kate (AKA Snake) Eginton, proprietors. The Arkansas Record/CD Exchange is a record store—like Jazz Record Mart in Chicago and the Sound of Market Street in Philadelphia. It's crowded with LPs, CDs, VIDs, DVDs and many, many "characters" among its diverse and colorful clientele.

Into a microscopic space at the front of the store Heller and his working trio, which includes organist Newt Johnson and Drummer David White, set up their respective wares and performed an 11 song set, extended from eight songs as more people wandered in. Heller is on the road promoting his latest recording Mean Things are Happening in this Land (Skyways 02, distributed by Ropeadope Records) and opened the show with the original "Katrina Mon Amour from the Mean Things disc. Affecting a Dick Dale surf guitar sound for the head of the tune, he next switched to his spherical trademark tone for the first part of his extended solo and then back to the surf sound but crossed with James Bond for the rest of the solo. Newt Johnson then soloed as if he were the love child of Jimmy Smith and Garth Hudson (the trio members are big fans of the Band).

Heller proved his incomparable worth as an accompanist, tastefully comping behind Johnson's solo. It soon was evident that Heller's music resists pigeon-holing into any single generic designation. He's musically omnivorous, ingesting and assimilating all musical styles, distilling them as, for lack of a better label, "Skip Heller Music. Heller and the group followed "Katrina, Mon Amour with a brainy cover of XTC's "Dear God. White and Johnson set up a backward reggae groove over which Heller laid the familiar melody purified and refined. Heller's solo was linear and intelligent while Johnson displayed unmistakably his Garth Hudson bona fides.

The trio's set list was a liquid and informal affair open to requests. Heller accommodated an appeal for his take on "Canadian Sunset, which Heller had released on his Out of Time: The Skip Heller Trio Live in Philly. "Canadian Sunset is Heller's tip-of-the-hat to one of his favorite artists, tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons ("Jug"), who made the song a jazz staple on his Boss Tenor. Heller and company then took a major left turn into a Bakersfield, California honky tonk parking lot for "The Old 99, a Heller composition on which he pays tribute to the Bakersfield Country sound of Buck Owens and the fabled country guitarist Roy Nichols. Heller put on a mean country vamp and blasted through a dozen guitar styles in a single chorus while White was laying down the two-step romp supported by Johnson's keyboards.

Continuing his explorations in regional music, Heller then played a new composition, "Along the Anchor Line, summoning up a riverboat period feel to the music. Heller is never far from multi-instrumentalist John Hartford, as demonstrated by his transformation of "Down from Hartford's Nobody Knows What You Do into an electric bluegrass-jazz hybrid. Heller and the band are scheduled to record these two pieces while in Memphis.

The show concluded with "Shirley Scott Trio WAS the Time from Bear Flag and a requested "Funeral March from Mahler #5 from Heller's It's Like That, one of Heller's most compelling composition/adaptations. The closers were Leon Russell-like takes on The Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl and the obscure Charlie Rich song "Red Man, composed by Bobby Sheridan. Eclectic is far too clichéd and inadequate as a description for this show. It was pan-musical.

The informality of the show made it possible for me to fill in some Skip Heller empty spaces. In recent years, Heller has had affection for Fender Mustang guitars with a 22 ½ inch-sized necks, explaining that he switched to a compressed fret board when diagnosed with tendonitis in his left hand. The guitar Heller used for this show was a green wood-grained Fender Mustang with a slightly larger back end resembling Mustang-Jaguar hybrids or the Jazzmaster. In passing, he added that there will be a Skip Heller edition of Fender guitars.

And with that, the trio reloaded their rented Durango and headed for Memphis and history.

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