Photo by Lori Sky Twohy
JamBandsOnline: I’ve been listening to your new album, Subject to Change Without Notice, that was released last month. First of all, great stuff! I absolutely dig it. One thing I noticed about it was how versatile it was; everything from gypsy jazz, blues, gospel, to jazz fusion. Was that something you were going for intentionally or did it just kind of happen that way?
Jimmy Herring: No, it just kind of happened that way. I mean, I just like a wide variety of music, but you know, as you get older you just kind of don’t see music in terms of that anymore. It’s music, and that’s kind of the way we look at it. Although, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling blues, blues and jazz, jazz or any of that. I don’t see anything wrong with it, but I’ve just gotten to where I look at music as being music, and really in the old days if a band had a diverse catalog it wasn’t really looked at as anything weird. I mean if you could go way back to the 30s 40s or 50s, or if you could just go to where I came up in the late 60s and 70s rock and roll like Led Zeppelin or the Beatles. Look how diverse their catalog of music is. It’s really diverse. They weren’t really into jazz per se, but they were definitely into all kinds of different things. I mean The Beatles catalog was incredibly eclectic, and they were coming along in a time where it wasn’t thought of to be strange for one song to be like an influence from Indian classical music, like Within You Without You.
JBO: Yea that was a great version of that song on the album!
JH: Aw man thank you, thank you. Well I mean I’ve always loved it and, I never really imagined doing it until a few years ago, and it just kind of came to me. I was like God, you know, that melody is so strong that even without an actual singer singing in it, you know? If you play that melody and the idea behind it was to play that beautiful melody over a drum and then have a section in the middle that could be exploratory and then come back to the beautiful melody at the end of it. So there’s sort of a jazz influence on the tune just in that regard as far as the arrangement goes. In a way, it’s like having the head of a jazz chain and then you play a solo then you come back to the head.
GS: Besides the Beatles track, were the other songs from the vault or were those composed recently?
JH: Well the Beatles tune has been out for a while, and the Jimmy McGriff cover tune (Miss Poopie) has been out for a while, and then there was the John McLaughlin cover tune that we did called Hope. The idea for that has been around for a long time. I’ve loved the tune always, and because no one took a solo on the original recording, it was somewhat of a mantra. The idea came to me to set the song up with a B section which it didn’t have on the original, and so basically I just put the chord progression from the original and then did this little deal called reharmonizing where you take the melody and you take the chords that exist within the original, and you change the bass notes which change the chords. A lot of people in jazz do that all the time. They’ll take a standard beautiful song and then they’ll just reharmonize it with different chords and the same melody would work …although we actually put a different melody there, but that’s the idea. Then we have the B section. Then I play a solo over the original chords in the original song, and Bill Evans plays a solo over the B section, and that’s how we did it. We never played it live, but it’s one of those things I’ve always wanted to do. Then with the original tunes, I guess most of them are fairly new. Some of them were literally two days before the session happened.
JBO: (laughs) Oh really, two days before?
JH: (Laughs) Yea, but you know, I was playing a lot going into the session, sitting at home just playing for hours at a time, going “ok now we got this tune; we got that tune; what do I need? I need another tune. I need another two tunes.” But I didn’t sit down and try to write it. They just came to me. Like, it’s weird; that doesn’t always happen for me. I’m not what you call a prolific writer. I was just messing around with a baritone guitar one day, literally like two days before the session, and wishing I had a tune to play with the baritone guitar because it’s such a different kind of texture, and I picked it up and plugged it into a great mid 60s Fender amp and just started playing, and out of nowhere came the tune Bildgewater Blues, and it just came out of nowhere, and like, wow, this is a funky little blues tune, so let’s do that (laughs)… it was kind of funny, and the gospel tune Aberdeen came the same way. I was just messing around, and fortune just came to me, and the melodies all came later in that particular instance. The outline came first and the melodies came later. Some of the other stuff I’ve been messing around with for I don’t know how long. Like the Twelve Keys sketch had been around. It was a sketch, you know, we didn’t have an actual melody to go through the changes. We just had a set of chords we were improvising on every night and in the set. Of course we didn’t play a whole lot of gigs because everybody’s really busy, but when we did play, we started using that sketch as a jumping off point. We had the song, Impressions, in the middle of the 12 keys sketch because it’s goes to d-minor. Impressions is are based out of d-minor, and it seemed to be the same tempo. So we’d been listening to Coltrane, as usual, and it came to our head, so when we were playing it live we would just play the sketch. In the middle of it where it goes to d-minor we would just play Impressions, and then we would come back in the sketch to end the song. When we recorded it I knew I needed to write a melody, so I had to work through that. The rest of the tunes started coming slowly, but surely, over the last couple of years, I guess.
JBO: I noticed you’re about to do several tour dates with Victor Wooten and his band, and I’ve got to say this is something very special for me personally, as he’s one of my favorite bassists, and you’re one of my favorite guitarists. How did you guys come together for this stretch of the tour, and what’s it like jamming with Vic?
JH: Well, man, I mean you know, Victor is a, he’s a force. He’s an incredible musician. He’s an incredible technician. He can just do anything and he always does what’s right for the song. That really impresses me. I’ve known Victor since the early 90s when they formed the Flecktones. The Flecktones actually did a tour in the early 90s, I think it was 92. It was Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic and ARU, the band I was in, was in there. In the first half of it Bela Fleck and the Flecktones played with us, and then in the other half of it Phish played instead of the Flecktones. I believe that’s how it went. It’s been a long time. (Laughs) See, I didn’t know Victor super well, but Oteil did, see, and Oteil was the bass player in the band I was in with Bruce Hampton and Jeff Sipe. You know, those guys had known each other for years from the Virgina Beach top 40 music scene, believe it or not. Kofi and Oteil, who are now in Derek’s band, you know, those guys were brothers on the Va Beach music scene, and then you had the Wooten Brothers, who were also in that scene, and I didn’t know any of them at that time, but when Oteil and Kofi moved to Atlanta, they told us about these Wooten brothers. They said wait ‘til you hear these guys. And then it wasn’t long after that before the Wooten brothers moved to Nashville and then Bela Fleck discovered these amazing musicians and started playing with them, and then they formed the Flecktones, and of course everybody was knocked out by the Flecktones immediately; just a group of super human beings that can play this unbelievable music. So anyway, I’ve had a lot of respect for Victor since the beginning, and you know, we have sat in and played with each other from time to time, but the way it came up for us to tour with his band is we’re booked by the same booking agent, the Ted Kurland agency. They brought up the idea to us, and we were like, “yea, let’s do it!”, because it seemed like a great idea. And we’re different from one another, our bands. I don’t mean just he and I. I mean our fans are really different from each other, but yet we have a lot of the same influences. It ought to be really an interesting night of music. We looked at that, and I looked what his band was doing. I was like, “man, this is some groundbreaking stuff, you know this is really cool. I definitely want in on this.” So that’s how it came about.
JBO: You mentioned ARU and you’ve done work with The Dead, the Allman Brothers, and of course your band and Widespread Panic. The differences in styles of playing are definitely apparent in those different bands, but generally speaking, do you find yourself itching more to play the more of the technical stuff or letting loose in a jam band type setting?
JH: Well again I don’t make a big distinction between them in my mind because, you know, music is…. at some point you just come to this place where music is music. But having said that, I think whatever you do the most, other sides of you, you know you long to play those other parts of what you love. Like if I was in this band that was playing 80 or 100 shows a year or more, you know, I would want to do some other stuff, too. As far as this year goes panic took this year off, for the most part, so I had some spare time so we were able to make a record and do a little bit of touring . Oh yeah, I mean I can’t say that I long to do anything in particular other than just play music. You know it’s a trip to me having been on you know both sides of this coin you know the jazz fusion type thing and the jam band type thing. There are many similarities, but like I said, to me it just ends up being music, but I guess I can try to look at from another point of view. You know, a band like Panic, they have a different set of muscles than say a band like what we’re doing right now. Like with the group that we’re out playing with now, we don’t have but maybe 20 songs that we can draw from because we just haven’t been a band for a long time, so we haven’t assimilated a giant catalog of music. In a way you’re playing a similar set every night because you don’t have enough music to do a different set every gig, for six gigs. Technically, the music might be more difficult, but a band like Panic see, the muscle they flex is they have 25 years of music behind them. They’re completely driven to learn new music all the time, so the muscle they flex is they have this massive catalog of music. They could play; jeez, they could play 6 or 7 shows that are 3 hour shows without repeating a single song. (Laughs) They can do that, and that’s amazing to me. It’s just a different set of muscles, you know. It’s interesting.
JBO: Well I know you’ve played with a heck of a lot of different musicians over your career. Who would you like to collaborate with or jam with, that you havent already done so?
JH: Oh man, you know, there’s so many. I mean Wayne Krantz is somebody I really respect, and Michael Landau. I could just name all these people I really respect, but some of them I don’t necessarily want to play with. But, like John Mclaughlin, you know, the guy is… he is one of my idols and always has been, and he’s recreated himself so many times. I mean, he comes from that school of like Miles Davis, where you don’t just keep putting out records that cover the same ground. He’s constantly evolving and constantly moving forward and that is a real inspiration to me. But I mean, I’m scared to death at the notion of playing with him. Although, you know, sitting in with him and playing a tune with him is one thing, but doing a project with him would be something else, but sure, I would love to do that someday. I mean I love Wayne Krantz and Michael Landau and Alex Machacek, all the people on the roster that Souvik (Dutta) has on his lable, I mean jeez, he’s putting out so many records this year that carry a lot of weight. I mean he’s got Wayne’s record. He’s got McLaughlin’s record. He’s got Alex Machacek’s new record, and see I’ve been lucky enough to hear these records before they came out because he was on tour with us, and he had copies of the new records that hadn’t really leaked yet so I got a sneak preview and let me tell ya… (Laughs) It’s freaking unbelievable. It’s truly unbelievable musicianship and compositional skills, and they’re all so different, which I love. I want to do a record with Derek (Trucks), my good friend, and I’ve known him since he was eleven years old. You know, we liked the record that we did four years ago or whenever it was. That was supposed to be our record. That was the idea, but you know man, everybody’s so busy, and everybody has obligations, and unfortunately it couldn’t be that because of the timing of the projects, but down the road I want to do a record with him. If I thought about it, I could probably keep you on the phone for an hour just listing people I want to work with. Joey DeFrancesco would be somebody I would love to work with. Branford Marsalis. Lesser known people, too, that are right here in Atlanta. There’s a guy named Bryan Lopes. I would love to do a project with him. He’s one of the greatest tenor sax players I’ve ever heard. And we’ve done some gigs with him in the past. The list would be infinite, man, of people I would love to work with. I would love to do some more work with Phil Lesh. You know, he’s just always evolving and he’s one of the most driven musical forces I’ve ever met. This is a guy, who on his birthday rehearsed a band for nine hours. I mean when I see that, you know, I’m inspired. Especially in his situation, he can do anything he wants. He can play with whoever he wants. He could give up playing and move to Mexico and live on the beach if he wanted to, but what does he do? He rehearses a band for nine hours on his birthday, and that means a lot. That says a lot about a person and what they want to do with their life. At his age, when he’s still driven to play music that much, that’s really inspiring.
JBO: Definitely! I caught the Christmas Jam here in Asheville this last year . That was a wonderful set.
JH: Oh that was fun big fun, and Bill Evans would be at the top of that list, and Bela Fleck would be at the top of that list. The guys that I have, playing on the record, that only played on one or two songs; Nicky Sanders from the steep canyon rangers. I’d love to some more work with him. I was lucky enough to get them to play on one song or two songs with Bill, and it was just really cool but really there’s no substitute for playing live, you know. But people are busy. It’s really hard to logistically make it work.
JBO: One thing I hear people refer to when they talk about your playing, Jimmy, is how you have such great tone. I was wondering if you could give our readers who play an idea of how you came to possess that trait and a couple of tips on how they might can work on improving their tone when playing.
JH: Well thank you very much. I mean, you know, for me it’s like it’s been a search of basically getting a good amp and a basic guitar that sounds good and you know you can do this with very little money and most people know that tone is real subjective. Like one person’s favorite tone might be another person’s something they don’t like, so it’s real subjective. For me, I didn’t know speakers were so important, and when I found these Tone Tubby speakers; the combination of the Tone Tubby speakers and an old Fender amp like say a mid 60’s super reverb or a twin reverb. There’s something about those old fender amps and those Tone Tubby speakers that is something that I really like, but you know, it’s not for everybody, but for me I haven’t looked back since I found that combination. Now, I mean it’s not for every musical situation, but for this musical situation , you know like if I’m in a band where I’m the only guitar player, the first amp I’m going to reach for would be a super reverb, probably one of the ones from say 64-67. Twin reverb is also a great amp, but you know they’re louder so you have to be in a place that can handle that kind of volume. But super reverb seems to be the perfect club amp, and I think most people are playing in clubs, so even a super reverb for a lot of people is too loud, so I would say look at the smaller fenders and these Tone Tubby speakers are just the magic combination. I think those speakers are the biggest tone thing that I’ve found affects it the most. And I think it’s in your hands; everybody knows that. It’s cliché to say those are your fingers; it’s going to sound like you no matter what you play through, and I definitely believe that, but I also believe that if you sound good through a transistor radio amp, you’re going to sound better through something that’s better. Then there are these newer amps like Fuse. Fuse amps are fantastic amps! You’ve got your Fuse amps and your Two-Rock amps, and I’m getting ready to explore the Paul Reed Smith amps because Derek and Warren really like these amps a lot, and they’ve been telling me, you need to look into these amps, and I was talking to those folks yesterday and I can’t wait to get to the Paul Reed Smith factory and just spend some time with their amplifiers and their guitars, too. But you know, for a lot of people some of these amps I’ve mentioned, they cost upwards of four to five thousand dollars. These amps are very expensive, but you know if money is a consideration, I would suggest look at your local craigslist and try to find an early 70s or late 60s Fender and start there, and what’s great about them is they inherently sound good. Then you can experiment, like if you need more overdrive than the amp will produce, then you start experimenting with different pedals that would push the amp a little further into an overdriven state. That’s where I would start. For me the magic combination has been a fusion Kettner tube factor with a Fender amp and those Tone Tubby speakers if we’re playing this type of music that we’re doing with this group, and that’s what I mostly used on the record too.
JBO: I read that you played saxophone in your highschool band before discovering your love for the guitar.
JH: Well I was playing the guitar before then.
GS: Oh really, ok.
JH: Yeah, I was playing guitar. Well I mean I had a guitar. I can’t really say I was serious about it in the 6th grade, but there was a guitar in the house, and I was messing around with it. But yea I did play sax in high school.
JBO: Do you ever pick it back up or are there any other instruments you like to play in your down time?
JH: I think all real musicians this I just my opinion, but I think all real musicians including horn players, drummers, guitar players; I think all of them should play piano because piano has got everything laid out in half steps and none of these other instruments have that except for other offshoots of the piano like the marimba or the xylophone or other instruments that have the same keyboard layout, but you might hit it in a different way like with mallets or whatever. But having said that I don’t play piano (Laughs), so that’s what I would say my goal would be, to study piano a little bit more. I have one in the house you know, but I haven’t spent enough time with. I have so much to work on with the guitar. The thing about the guitar you can change tunings; that’s the next thing I want to do is to explore some open tunings, and you know like the dadgad open tuning, open E like Derek (Trucks) uses, open D, open G. Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes; he’s a master of all these open tunings People go, “why does Rich change guitars after every song?” Well the reason why is because each songs in a different tuning, man. Like, they’ll have open F, open G, open D, dadgad and probably some tunings he created himself. That guy is an open tuning specialist. Even though it’s still a guitar, and even though you play it with a pick and your fingers and all that, but it’s like a different instrument when you change the tuning, and that’s one of the beautiful things about the guitar, and that’s one of the reason you can have so many different sounds coming from the same instrument with different people playing. But piano would be the instrument that I would want to pursue if I were going to pursue another instrument.
JBO: The first stop on the next leg of your tour with your band is going to be next weekend at Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival in Pinnacle, NC. You guys are going to play Friday night and Saturday you’ll be playing special set in with the Everyone Orchestra which looks like is going to be truly an All Star cast up there.
JH: Well man, I’m so looking forward to that! I played one time years ago with the same people, I mean different cast of characters, but the same conductor, who did a fantastic job by the way! I was blown away (laughs) I had a wonderful time doing it, so when they called and invited me to come to this year I was excited I was like absolutely, I’m looking forward to it!
JBO: So is this a situation where this is truly completely improv, or will you guys be spending any time in preparation for that set?
JH: As far as I know it’s completely improvised, and you know, the conductor has really got his stuff together. He was excellent at that, but as far as I know it’s going to be completely improvised, unless there’s something I missed along the way, which I probably should look into that, because if there’s something I’m supposed to learn I better find out.
JBO: What’s in your CD player? What are you listening to?
JH: Oh man, well I mean right now like I was telling you: Wayne Krantz, Alex Machacek, John McLaughlin. Really, I need to be careful about listening to guitar players, especially ones that I find so intriguing, because it’s very dangerous because after a certain point as a musician you don’t necessarily have to sit with a cd and learn people’s stuff. Some of their stuff is going to creep into your playing even if you don’t spend time learning it. Now a lot of it, maybe, maybe not difficult lines and things, but peoples phrasing can be really addictive, and I love Wayne Krantz’s phrasing. I mean Alex Machacek’s record is just devastating. That guy is a mad scientist. He’s like Frank Zappa meets Alan Holdsworth. I hate comparing people to other people, but if somebody needed a description of what he does, that might be a good place to start, and of course John McLaughlin. It goes without saying; he’s in a class by himself. That’s what I’ve been listening to lately, because I was able to hear that stuff that’s not even out yet. Other than that man, I’ve been on a Charlie Christian binge, been listening to Charlie Christian’s, a lot of his famous stuff that he did with Benny Goodman, the late clarinet player, you know those timeless old tunes. I’ve been listening to Louis Armstrong some. I like these old tunes, and I want to do some of them with this group but so far we haven’t added anything from their catalog to our list, but there are a lot of songs on these old Benny Goodman records that are so much fun, and it might be fun to do with this intrumentation. We don’t have a clarinet player, and we don’t have a trumpet player, but those tunes are timeless, and you can still play those melodies on other instruments, so that’s kind of where I’m looking at for inspiration right now.
JBO: Right on. Well before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about?
JH: Yea I’d like them to know how much we all appreciate them. Because they support live music, we can go do this, and they should all feel like they’re part of this because, you know, I’m not talking about just me; I’m talking about the music community. That’s the beautiful thing about this genre we kind of play in, is that these fans are so supportive of the music. They come to every show. You know man, without them doing that we couldn’t be doing this, and so pat yourselves on the back because we can’t do this without you, you know, and I never want to forget that, and I just want to say thanks to them. That’s what I would say.