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Skip Heller: Inviting You In to his Musical World

R.J. DeLuke By

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Once you start getting into blues, you?re approaching the whole palette of American music. There?s no good American music that doesn?t have a foot somewhere in the blues.
Where do you start with Skip Heller, a self-taught guitarist, composer, arranger who's been playing bars and clubs since his high school days, everything from blues to rock to rockabilly to bluegrass to folk and on and on. He knows Mahler and Dave Douglas. He knows Louis Jordan and Henry Mancini. He may be the world's biggest Mose Allison fan and at the same time he digs the attitude punk rock brought to music.

He's scored music for cartoons like The Flintstones and Dexter's Laboratory , and scored movie soundtracks. Not sappy bullshit starring Julia Roberts, but films like A Man is Mostly Water and Jane White is Sick and Twisted.

Heller's got style, though it's hard to describe. He's a remarkable, yet offbeat, raconteur with a voracious appetite for music and an uncanny memory for recordings ' and I mean tons of them ' he's listened to over his 37 years and the people who made them. He knows writings by and about musicians too. It's evident these things still excite him today, even if it's something he first heard or read about a long time ago.

Mose. David Bromberg. Sun Ra. Bill Evans. Cannonball Adderley. Paul Desmond. Jon Hartford. Tal Farlow. Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Coleman Hawkins. Joni Mitchell, Earl Scruggs. These are all musicians that Heller digs, and there are many more. He's influenced by movie scores and Carl Stallings, who penned the music for the Looney Toons animated classics.

Name another person who's recorded the music behind The Roadrunner cartoons and listened to it for pleasure on its own merits, enjoying its idiosyncratic content. And name another person who played a weeklong gig as guitarist with NRBQ, and after the last set jumped on an airplane to get back home just in time for a wedding' His own!

This is a man who enjoys making music and mulling it around. He's intelligent, articulate, funny, quirky, and also generous of spirit. He's highly expressive in a style that's'well' that's Skip Heller.

So what's the deal with this Philadelphia native? Well, he's a jazz musician, he avows, with an undying love for the blues, and inexhaustible curiosity for the new and a humble respect for the old. Check out his new CD and it will give you a taste of all his various musical influences from his home town, hence the title Homegoing . From 'The Night Before' his takeoff on The Beatles with its smooth, intricate, horns and clean and tasty guitar, to NRBQ's 'Thinking of You' done in a satin-smooth, guitar-over-organ groove. There's crooning ('Time After Time') and swingin' ('I Just Keep Lovin' Her').

'I didn't grow up playing jazz. It was my own progress. This kid that got interested in improvising from bluegrass music. Don't ask me how a kid from Philadelphia points to bluegrass music as a first thing. It had a lot to do with what was on TV at the time,' he said.

The basis of the new CD is the organ trio, which Heller is going to keep pursuing for a time (though he was soon to be off to record a duet album with fellow Philadelphian Heath Allen, a respected pianist and longtime friend). 'Philadelphia is almost completely stereotyped — rightly so too, when you think about it — as B-3 country. I've never gotten past being from Philadelphia. No matter where I go. No matter where I've live, I will always be a product of Philadelphia. So I wanted to kind of go back and say 'What's the sound of jazz in Philadelphia?' Boom. It goes right to the organ trio. Because that was around, that's where the jam sessions were. And the other thing is when you think of the classic Philadelphia jazz records, so much of it is B-3. Pat Martino with Trudy Pitts. Right there. Up to and including Joey DeFrancesco. I didn't have to go on a deep research project for that one. When I decided I wanted to put together my own trio, the instrumentation automatically in my head was drums, organ, guitar.'

Heller doesn't consider himself a virtuoso player. You don't get Joe Pass, and that's fine. You get Joe Pass from Joe Pass.

He described his sound once as '1952 jazz guitar played-on-a-rhythm-and-blues-album tone.'

'I'm still trying to play one thing as good as the first time I heard Charlie Christian,' he said another time. But Heller can get around on the guitar. His melodicism is sweet and his sound is rich. He's a thinker, and modesty aside ('I hate guys who are talented, I really do. I have to work for every inch of ground' he quipped at one point) his playing is hip. Besides, when you hear his band and his music, it's not Mr. Guitar with Sidemen. It's the sum of the parts. It's the feeling. It's a certain thought being conveyed on this song. Another feeling on that song. Or feelings can shift within the same overall structure. Virtuosity is not the end.


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