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Jimmy Herring: The Lifeboat Sessions and More

Phil DiPietro By

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I hate that mentality where the instrument is more important than the music, especially guitar, because it's been so exploited.
Jimmy HerringJimmy Herring has transitioned from an underground favorite to one of America's elite guitarists. The resume is now a dream, progressing from GIT to ARU, Frogwings to the Allman Brothers, Jazz is Dead to Phil Lesh and then on to the real thing—the actual Dead, if you will. Herring is the archetype for the melody-drenched lead man that can take it to far off galaxies. Somehow, nobody plays like Herring, but he's always capable of reminding sometimes huge audiences exactly what song he's playing and who he's playing with.

One other thing has remained a constant, even now when he's responsible for providing the melodic contours of the Widespread jam, is that jazz looms large in his arsenal of influence. And it's of the unabashedly electric and exciting sort. Remember, before Herring, Jeff Sipe and the Burbridge brothers formed the now-legendary Aquarium Rescue Unit with the Colonel Brice Hampton, thereby jump-starting the Jamband revolution, they had a fusion band.

Luckily, Herring keeps indulging his jazz "jones" by revisiting it on his own recordings and projects, whether with past post-ARU outlets, like Jeff Sipe's Apartment Projects and Project Z, or his freshly completed and scintillating Lifeboat (Abstract Logix, 2008).

All About Jazz: I just want to begin by noting how amazing it is that you've gone from this cult, ARU guy, to one of this country's exemplary or archetypical guitarists. What you do, very few guys can do—playing the virtuosic lines, but keeping the southern thing in it. With all these iconic American bands like Widespread, the Allmans and the Dead, you're at the pinnacle of where you could be.

Jimmy Herring: I would never have imagined it. I was looking for a band to be in for twenty years or more and ARU was it, but it wasn't meant to be that way. That's what I wanted, to stay in that band forever. But it was meant to do what it did and then move on. One member would leave and another would leave and it just wasn't the same anymore.

AAJ: As a former and current fan I agree, but it's great that you continue on with even still getting some shows together.

JH: Yes, we will be doing some more. We just have to get our stuff together.

AAJ: And you dipped back into that bag, instrumentally anyway, with Project Z too.

JH: See, that was Ricky Keller—we always looked at him like second in command to Bruce—the highest ranking officer. Basically we loved him. He wasn't in ARU but he was in spirit. He ran a studio in town so he couldn't be on the road and stuff. So when ARU was no longer playing and Jeff and I wanted to sort of pick up where it left off and just try to continue on with the idea—well, that's what Project Z was. So we got Ricky to play bass because he understood Bruce's philosophy as well as anyone. Oteil [Burbridge] would have been involved too, but he was playing with the Allman Brothers and some other stuff.

AAJ: You're not that well-known outside of the US, but domestically, you're getting some well-deserved recognition.

JH: I still think, in some ways, it's in an underground kind of sense. I'm so flattered that I've been fortunate enough to get to work with all these great bands. I just haven't done that much playing outside of the country. There have been opportunities, but they just haven't been the right ones yet. Even when I was with Phil [Lesh], we played only US dates and the same goes for when I was with the Allman Brothers for a brief stint and the same goes for the Dead. Panic has toured outside of the country, but not with me yet. We even had opportunities with ARU, but we would have been sleeping on top of each other. I don't think Bruce would have done it, even if better offers than what we got came along.

AAJ: As far as the jazz scene goes, and you're really taking a giant step over in that direction with this record, there's New York, there's LA, and then there's this group of cats down south that consists, basically, of you, Oteil, Sipe, Kofi, Bela and Victor Wooten, that has made significant inroads into the jazz world. How did that happen for you guys?

JH: I came back here [Atlanta, where Herring now lives] after being in California just to go to school at GIT. There were some great musicians there. In fact Jeff Buckley was one of the guys in my class who I used to hang out with all the time. We were always talking about what we were going to do after graduation. This guy Steve Freeman, who was a teacher at school and a brilliant guitarist, had the idea to open a school in the south. He was leaving California to move back to Atlanta. I'm from North Carolina, so he asked me if I'd be interested in moving back to the south since I was a southern guy anyway. I told him I'd be way into it, because LA really wasn't for me. There were a lot of great things about it , but the whole circuit with the play to pay thing was bad. You know what that is, right?

AAJ: You have to guarantee some amount of the door right?

JH: In LA you had to buy a sold-out house.

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