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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.

Jimmy HerringAAJ: That's impossible.

JH: Wherever you were playing you had to buy every ticket and sell the place out. It was up to you to sell the tickets and whatever you didn't sell, you had to eat.



Granted these were not big places, but 500 people when you're just getting started is tough. So when Steve came to me I ended up coming here in 1986. Maybe the second or third day I was in town Scott Henderson was coming into the school to do a clinic and he's one of my favorite players. I had been to school out there and I was always blown away by him.

AAJ: I wanted to ask you about Scott in particular because I really hear his influence in your playing.

JH: Yeah, big time.

AAJ: Angular phraseology and a lot of twisted pentatonic lines and ideas.

JH: I noticed a long time ago that he plays a lot of pentatonic lines, but that they were not from the root of the chord. He does a lot of that. Coltrane did a lot of that and that's probably where he got it.



So Scott's a monster and he's doing the clinic in Atlanta and when I got there he was using local musicians, and one of the guys was Jeff Sipe. So within a couple of days I heard Sipe playing with Henderson and I was saying, "Oh my god! This guy is local? I came to the right place."



So I went right up to Sipe after the clinic and said, "That was amazing! My name's Jimmy and I just moved to town. You're someone I'd love to play with." He said, "Really? What are you doing tomorrow?" And he didn't know me at all.



So I went to his house the next day—no bass, no keyboards—just drums and guitar and we played for five hours. We had this instant chemistry. I knew then that I wanted to play with this guy for the rest of my life.



And then he called me up two weeks later and said, "Man, these two dudes just moved into town from Virginia Beach and they're brothers. It's Oteil and Kofi Burbridge, and by the way they're my roommates!" They had moved into Sipe's house—that's the first place they lived. I remember he said, "You've got to come over here—now!"



So I grabbed my stuff and I got to play with Oteil, Kofi and Sipe within two weeks of moving to town, in 1986. We had a band but we never really gigged because then the situation in Atlanta was, to get a gig, you had to play four sets. We were trying to do all original material. Everybody was hustling and doing other gigs. I was doing some teaching and Sipe was teaching and playing in some different top-40 bands. Oteil and Kofi had become the new guys on the scene so they were in demand on the top-40 circuit. But four hours of music was tough to get together—we had about 90 minutes worth of original music and besides that, it was fusion oriented music, too.



But then Sipe started talking about this guy, Bruce Hampton, saying stuff like, "Man, it's really truly liberating to play with this guy. Everything is real roots oriented, but because it's so simple we can take real liberties with the music—you can go out and come back in. It's just funk meets jazz meets blues." It sounded real good to me. Soon Sipe and Oteil started playing with Bruce full-time. I went to see them and was blown away by what they were doing. When we played together we played more fusion-oriented music that we were writing, but neither Sipe nor Oteil knew I liked to play blues. I thought they'd be bored playing a blues, but I found out they loved it—they were playing it all night with Bruce. They also didn't know I liked playing country-type stuff and I had no idea Sipe could even play a two-beat, let alone enjoy doing it. As it turns out it just exploded—musically, I mean.

Jimmy Herring



The first night the music just took off. Then, Jeff Mosier, a great banjo player who was already in that band, brought in Matt Mundy, a great mandolinist from the bluegrass world, in and the thing really just—at that point we decided, "Oh, we're going to definitely do this." And it wasn't about money. We were playing one night a week at a 99 cent draft beer night or something.

AAJ: It's very cool what you just related. Because what you basically just said was, none of you realized it, but all the musicians involved did everything. The southern contingent is versatile. Speaking of which, I was going to ask you how jazz got in there given some of your older interviews say Dicky Betts and Steve Morse were your primary and biggest influences.

JH: I never thought Steve Morse was jazz, but his music was intelligent and it's instrumental. But I was already into listening to jazz, even though I knew I couldn't swing because I'm a white guy from North Carolina. [laughs] I was inspired by jazz; listening to a lot of Coltrane, and I also really loved Elvin Jones. I always loved jazz—I just never really had it come up in an interview before.

AAJ: Like since you were a kid?

JH: Specifically, I got hip to the Dregs when I was like 17 or 18, but by 19 or 20 I was more into jazz. My brother hipped me to Mahavishnu. That led me to what [John] McLaughlin had done before that with Miles [Davis]. Then I got hip to all the things Miles had done and started realizing I better start studying horn players and listening them for inspiration. I got it into my mind that guitar players were getting their licks from other guitar players, so I listened to a lot of Cannonball [Adderley] and thought he was the greatest, and Bird [Charlie Parker] and Dizzy [Gillespie]. Cannonball is like the ultimate blues man—listen to that album Somethin' Else (Blue Note, 1958)—that's unbelievable.



But then, right after that, I went to school and I heard Scott Henderson and that was like Michael Brecker meets Jeff Beck, which really knocked me out, making me want to hear the guitar in the role of a horn player.

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