Steely Dan's Jon Herington and Jim Beard

Mike Jacobs By

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While keyboardist / producer Jim Beard and guitarist Jon Herington are both solo recording artists with long and varied careers that straddle jazz, rock and beyond, they may be best known these days for being longtime members of Steely Dan's current touring band. They have also been close friends for nearly 40 years. They sat down for a conversation as they were preparing for their first-ever duo tour to start in June 2017.

All About Jazz: What was the genesis of the duo tour?

Jon Herington: Well, we had talked about doing something a few years ago. We floated the idea and it never got anywhere. I had been pushing to work with my guitar / bass / drums trio [The Jon Herington Band] for many years and that sort of exhausted itself. I felt like I had done it for long enough and needed a break from it. There were some holes in the calendar this year because Steely Dan hasn't been working quite as much as in past years and so I thought it might be a good time to revive the idea.We had some time coming up in June. We got together once for a couple hours and played just to make sure something might be possible and I guess we were convinced enough to gamble and book the gigs. We have six gigs to try this whole concept out.

AAJ: What kind of material are you planning to do?

Jim Beard: We had a good couple of days where we went through a lot of stuff. I think getting up to this first run of gigs, we're going to prepare a little too much material. I have a feeling that we're going to realize certain things aren't working and will want to drop them right away.

JH: So far it's a pretty wide variety. We spent quite a bit of time trying to find a way to play some of the songs on Jim's records and some of the songs on an older instrumental record of mine [The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, reissued and re-titled in 2009 as Pulse and Cadence]. Looks like we'll be able to do a couple from that record and three or four from Jim's many records. Some of those are pretty tricky to learn—there's a lot of music there.

JB: Some of the songs are more reliant on the rhythmic aspect of how the songs were realized in the beginning and just don't seem to work...

JH: ...and others were pleasant surprises. We're just learning how to do it so it's kind of an adventure in that way. We're also going to do some pop tunes and some jazz tunes where we'll do some soloing. So there's going to be a variety but we're still working it out.

AAJ: Some duos these days will supplement with multiple keyboards, loopers, drum tracks and the like. What instrumentation are you planning on?

JB: Piano. A little bit earlier we were trying out melodica too but mainly piano I think.

JH: ...and guitar. That's as adventurous as it's going to get.

JB: We talked about a drum machine but then we decided no.

JH: That takes away from that sort of riskier, intimate and direct thing we can make happen with just a piano and guitar. We're trying to keep it pretty pure that way.

AAJ: Are you playing electric, Jon?

JH: Yes. I want to play a guitar I'm comfortable with and the one I typically play is a semi- hollow that wouldn't sound like anything if it wasn't plugged in.

AAJ: Is a recording planned to come out of this?

JH: We talked about it. I think once we have a sense of what's working and most effective, we thought it would be nice to do a quick little recording. It will be easier to do once we've been playing for a while.

JB: After we get through this initial run, I think we'll consider that.

AAJ: So this is your first duo tour together but you've played together in Steely Dan now for how long?

JB: This is my 9th year. Jon's been in the band a lot longer.

JH: It's been 17 years for me.

AAJ: How has that gig evolved for you both?


JH: You first. (laughs)

JB: It's a great band. The core band, the rhythm section just keeps getting better and better. That never gets old for me at all.

JH: That's the big thrill for me too, just to get to play with a rhythm section that is world class. And it has gotten better being out on the road over the years, you get to that beautiful, sweet spot sooner. That's the biggest evolutionary element to the band, it seems to me. That's the great pleasure of it.

JB: Also, there are a few of us in the band that are always looking to find the best oyster place in every town. (laughs) That's an evolving thing...

JH: ...and that's been getting better because of GPS and smartphones (laughs)...so we've become a culinary tour as much as a musical tour (laughs)...

AAJ: When you both came up in the '80s and through the early '90s, the dynamics of jazz was a bit different than today. Do you have any thoughts on shifts in the dynamics of late?

JB: Well, one thing is, back in the '80s, '90s, and early 2000's; you used to be able to go to Japan with your normal band and do the Blue Note circuit. Now they pretty much tell you who they want in your band.

AAJ: Really? This is currently?

JB: They are doing it now. The promoters can tell who you should have in your band. They tell you, "We want you to have "So and So." That's become a very strange thing.

AAJ: Jon, In the '90s you released an instrumental record, The Complete Rhyming Dictionary as your solo debut. Your next release wasn't until 2000's Like So, which was a vocal-oriented rock project.

JH: Yeah, it was a very different thing.

AAJ: I read somewhere that one or both of you got fed up when the "Smooth Jazz thing" hit. Was that the reason for the change in direction?

JH: I had done a couple tours in Europe with Jim's band's and I'm sure I must have registered Jim's frustration at that whole [jazz] endeavor and his growing reluctance to dive into it that deeply, like other people had done before. Many people Jim had worked with, like John Scofield for instance, never let up that way but also they had done it longer and much more aggressively before that. It just seemed to me that making a living that way as a musician was on the decline. I also had a young child at that time and I wanted to be home anyway. I looked at the making of that record [The Complete Rhyming Dictionary] as the closing of a chapter for me. I also began to get more interested in playing with that trio of mine [The Jon Herington Band] and writing music for it. That led to that first record of songs [Like So].

(To Jim Beard): I don't know if I gauged you right about not really being enthusiastic for continuing to push your career in that way.

JB: Well those tours that I did then were created to support records. I had help from the record companies on both occasions and that made it doable. I also didn't have to think like: "I have to just tour and do MY thing." I had a pretty active career producing records and had a strong studio sideman thing going on. Then I started a family, had two young children, and I wanted to not be an absent father. There was never a time for "I'm going to do my band and that's it."

AAJ: Well, it seems we've reached a point where many players these days say it's a luxury to put out a solo record but they do so for artistic reasons—if they can afford to.

JH: That's certainly how I've done it. Except for that first record, nobody's ever given me money to do it. I've always decided that it was something I wanted badly enough and cared enough about to invest in myself. There are a few pluses like, any income I get from selling them is mine and will always be mine. That's a plus but not much of one because we don't sell that much.

AAJ: There are many out there today, guys like Matt Garrison come to mind, who fully embrace the new prototype of the entrepreneurial musician—who not only perform and put out their own records but own a venue / studio, do their own website sales and lessons, etc. It seems the order of the day is diversification. You guys have a studio, correct?

JB: Yes, we call it The Cave. It's three times as big as the last place we had.

AAJ: Is it for your projects, other people's projects, a rehearsal space?

JB: All of the above.

JH: It's not a place where we can do full band tracking but it's an individual workspace for each of us and an equipment storage space for us. Like a home studio though not at home.

AAJ: Going forward, do you see yourselves continuing to diversify as others are doing— teaching perhaps?

JH: I don't envy younger people who are just starting out in this business but I've actually been able to do the opposite in the last several years. I feel like I'm able to relax a little for the first time ever really and not worry so much about where the next gig is coming from.That's because I've been lucky to have two really solid touring jobs- -with Steely Dan and with Madeleine Peyroux. It's more road work than I'd like to do but I'm happy to ride them out. And I don't know that I'll need to be chomping at the bit to replace them when they go away. I'm older. In two years I'll be collecting Social Security, assuming Trump doesn't take it away from us. (laughs)

And that's another reason why I wanted to try this thing with Jim as well. We've known each other 40 years or so and if we get a basic repertoire together for the two of us, we're thinking that it's going to be pretty easy to revive any time there's an opportunity for a gig or masterclass or to add a rhythm section. It might be a way we could more affordably get away and book a tour with a "found" rhythm section in Europe or possibly Japan—something you can easily do nowadays. I'm not really hungry to do a million other things. I was more ambitious when I was younger. If I have a few musical outlets that satisfy me in a creative way, maybe a little teaching, I'm ok with that.

AAJ: Jim?

JB: Well, I'm just taking what comes along, really. I do a lot of things in Europe where I guest with other groups. In August, there are these French musicians I'm playing with (Nguyen Le, Hadrien Feraud, Nicolas Viccaro, Stephane Guillaume), we're going to do a Jazz festival in Monaco. There's a group of Swedish guys that I'm going to join after that and we'll play Denmark and Sweden. A couple of years ago I was invited to the Didier Lockwood Institute outside of Paris. It's a jazz oriented school but has a string department too. They wanted to do a project based around the music from my album [with the Metropole Orkest], Revolutions so they had me come over to rehearse them and conduct them and we gave a concert after five days. What was really interesting was they have a sister school in Paris itself where, after the five days of doing that, there was a masterclass. The composition teacher who set it up gave her class an assignment wherein each student picked a song off my solo piano album Show of Hands and arranged it for a group. I was knocked out.

AA J: Are you suited to the teaching life?

JB: Well, years ago, when my family was younger, I seriously pursued institutionalized education—the college thing. Once, as a fluke, I responded to an ad in the union trade paper that said Berklee up in Boston was looking for a new Dean of Composition. So I sent in my resume and thought I would never hear back from them. About a month later I got a letter saying they would like me to send more information and recordings of my music, so I did that. Then I got another letter saying that I had made it to the short list and they would like to see more things from me. Then I got a phone call from them saying I was narrowed down to one of three candidates and they would like me to fly up to Boston for a couple of days. I really didn't expect any of this but then I had to sit through committee meetings. I mean, I thought I was being vetted for Supreme Court Justice, it was ridiculous. It's funny, they ended up not accepting any of the final three candidates—none of us got it. After that I did a year of teaching at Rutgers Mason Gross School and I was also teaching at the Aaron Copland School of Music because the family was back in the states and I wanted to have some time teaching gigs. I knew, after a couple years of diving into it, that that was not a role I wanted to get into. I feel like so many of these teachers in that world, they behave more like politicians. They're all afraid of losing their jobs. Everybody's looking over their shoulder, worried about getting stabbed in the back somehow. I decided this is not for me. I teach privately and enjoy that. I also like giving masterclasses, going to universities and doing a day or two but the full-time, trying to be an adjunct professor? I'm older. I don't want to start ladder-climbing now.


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