After years of writing songs, authoring a book, scoring movies and bits in Hollywood-- plus going back to Philly-just to keep the attitude ‘live,’ Heller has paid his dues. Now, he has gathered the hottest talents and taken off on his US tour, highlighting the many skills he’s gained over the years-carrying his sense of humor with him.
Debuting on the Hyena Record label, with his CD, Fake Book, Heller begins with Sweet Rhythm in New York, NY on March 11, 2004. This is one of those "Don’t Miss It" tours.
JazzReview: Hello. Is this Mr. Skip Heller? This is Nina Goodrich for Jazz Review.
Skip Heller: Yes, this is Skip Heller.
JazzReview: Are you actually awake? I figured you would probably still be asleep if you had to work last night.
Skip Heller: Well, actually, I didn’t have to work last night. Plus, I try to get up early to spend time with my wife before she goes to work. She has a nine-to-five job so I try to see her before she leaves for work.
JazzReview: Along with writing songs and playing guitar, you have also authored a book. Is your wife supportive of your creative efforts? Does she understand writing as an art?
Skip Heller: Oh yes. Actually, it is so much easier now that I’m married. Life is hard. Life is difficult even if you’re having fun. When you have the right person in your life, things are so much easier. My wife is absolutely my best friend. Of all the people in the world I can hang out with or do hang out with, she’s still my first choice. She’s the person I can always have a conversation with - or "let’s just get in the car for four hours, and maybe stay in that interesting motel."
JazzReview: Most people can’t spend four hours together.
Skip Heller: That’s another thing about the band on Fake Book. We were basically in each other’s way for about a week..
JazzReview: Oh, you had to find each other’s rhythm.
Skip Heller: Yes. We basically liked each other, but we had two vehicles. One was the smoker’s. The other was the non-smoker’s vehicle. The organ player and I smoked and I just quit a couple months ago. He called me the other day to say, "Man, okay-- you motivated me. I just bought the patch."
JazzReview: Oh, really? That’s great.
Skip Heller: In terms of the four of us getting together and going to the studio, it was so easy because everybody just got along. It’s better to be in a band than to lead the band. My attitude is "Yeah, somebody has to be the leader, somebody has to sign the paychecks, and book the hotels rooms." We know that going in. We know that’s part of the process.
The other side of that is, when you’re actually playing your music, you really should put your ego aside. The power of four people is greater than one person. It’s like basketball. You know what a point guard is? Sometimes it’s better to be the point guard than to be the guy dunking. Sometimes it’s better to play a solo, so you set up the tune so the next guy doing a solo has something to build upon, instead of going, "Here’s my close-up!"
JazzReview: I’ve noticed all the tunes on your album are very well integrated. They’re each extreme. None of them skip a beat. Each solo was meant to be that way, and each artist brought out the best in their instrument. The other musicians back the soloist up, but they don’t take over the spotlight.
And, Robert Drasnin-I understand you brought him back from retirement.
Skip Heller: Yeah. He was a big guy in television music. He wrote music for the Man From Uncle and The Twilight Zone, and some detective shows in the seventies. Eventually, he became the head of music at CBS. Before that, he was an alto player. He’s 76-years old.
JazzReview: He’s incredible. I shared it with a friend who said, " this is it!" This is going to be another one of those hot hits.
Skip Heller: He still goes and plays tennis every morning. But basically, he’s a friend of mine so it was like, "Why don’t you come and play with us?" It turned out to be one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.
The thing about Bob is, in a way, it’s like finding someone who stopped at about 1957 because he went into composing so heavily. Then, when you bring him back, it’s like he’s hermetically frozen or something.
JazzReview: And that’s the great part about him.
Skip Heller: Yeah, because jazz is such a total, peer pressure kind of music. It’s like if you’re not playing this Joe Henderson stuff or that Herbie stuff, you aren’t playing the real music. Pardon me, but .
The music of the fifties has been revised. Back in Philly when I was coming up, Joe Downy was the bartender at a club called Pet’s (SP), which was the big place for bands in the 1960s. That’s where Cannonball played. That’s where Coltrane played-all those bands.
The older guys would always want to tell the younger guys how much better they had it. You would hear things like "That was back when women were ladies," and that sort of stuff.
(Downy) said, in the sixties, he hated tending bar when Coltrane would play, or when the Miles Davis group would play, because the club would be empty. The music was exhausting.
So, I asked him, "Who’d you make money with?" He said Horace Silver was always the biggest moneymaker. Jack McDuff was always a big money maker. It was always the people who never it was always the group who-no matter how advanced their music might get, the group never lost its connection with swinging that traceable, grooving, swing that thing immediately traceable back to the blues.
Horace Silver has written some very advanced music. I mean, he’s a compositional genius. I put him right up there with Thelonious Monk. Even with that said, there’s always something in his writing that draws the listener in. He never leaves the listener out of his music.
JazzReview: Do you think those who draw the crowd have something innate that understands what the crowd wants to hear? Or do you think they are playing to themselves-what feels good to them?
You have that quality. You have something that makes people want to listen-an outstanding quality in your playing. They don’t just listen, but they also feel it.
Skip Heller: Well, thank you. It’s hard for me to say what an audience taps into or whatever. As an audience member, when I hear somebody, I’m not hearing that person the same way as the guy next to me may hear him. I’m a musician. I almost hate going out to hear live music because I tap into things other people don’t. For instance, I can tell,--Oh, that piano player can’t hear himself. I can tell if the band members can’t hear each other, or if one can’t hear himself.
JazzReview: You’re going to be in Mobile in about three weeks.
Skip Heller: Oh, is it that soon? It’s interesting for me because I’ve never played in the south before.
JazzReview: Oh, these folks love great jazz.
Skip Heller: That’s what I hear. I was speaking to Mose Alison once and he said if you go to New Orleans, every kind of jazz has a home there. You can hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, then walk five minutes and hear the most avant-garde music in the country. That’s interesting to me and I guess it goes back to the question ‘is there something innate, reaching audiences?
From the earliest days, the New Orleans musicians seemed to find a way to do very advanced things and they didn’t leave the audience behind. If you listen to the front end of West End Blues, you can hear Louis Armstrong invent Dizzie Gillespie. He does a perfect be-bop, except the record was made in 1928.
JazzReview: A little ahead of his time, huh?
Skip Heller: Now, there’s an early example of a New Orleans musician playing this advanced thing. But remember, he was a hit-a giant hit. Every trumpet player for 20 years after that learned that opening.
Then, you have rhythm and blues tradition. Professor longhair would be there playing the most pseudo-poly rhythmic, sort of Latin into blues music. If you ever saw that stuff written out on paper, you’d go "What the hell is this?" I mean it looks like somebody just threw black ink splots, then drew stems and beams and said, "It’s music now." And then, again, people hear that Mardi Gras mambo type stuff, which is very rhythmically advanced, and,--their (musicians) right on top of it.
JazzReview: New Orleans seems to be such a colossal culture. They just brought everything with them
Skip Heller: The experience of playing for a live audience is always great for me because I always have to rethink and reconfigure what I’m playing.
JazzReview: Do you pick up new energy as you go?
Skip Heller: First of all, playing with musicians that you really like is like a big old cup of coffee. The other side of it is, if you’re playing to the audience and all the energy is coming from the bandstand, and no energy is coming back to it from the audience, that can be draining.
That happens very rarely to us. As I’ve gotten to be a more experienced bandleader, I’ve had better luck. You know, figuring out how to give the audience what they need. That’s why I try to not play in Los Angeles very much. LA just isn’t a great jazz place to play. My own personal view of what city to play, Seattle is about the best place to play jazz.
JazzReview: I’ve read so much about you. I almost feel as if I know you already. You are a multi-talented artist on many different levels. Your guitar playing is superb. As a matter of fact, on track number nine of your Fake Book, your playing (along with the heights of Bob Drasnin’s horn) nearly brought me to tears. The playing was so intricate.
Skip Heller: Oh, thank you. If you want to hear more of that kind of playing, you need to find some discs of this guy, Bill Jennings. That was me on the track doing Bill Jennings’ solo.
JazzReview: Oh, I see.
Skip Heller: Jennings was the original guitar player in the Wild Bill Trio. They were like the original organ trio. They did the original April In Paris. When Count Basie heard the original Wild Bill Trio doing April In Paris, he freaked out. He went to Wild Bill Davis and said, "Do me a favor-write me an arrangement for my band," which he did and it was one of the biggest hits of all times.
JazzReview: About connecting with the audience: what is your experience?
Skip Heller: My own attitude, speaking only for myself, the whole purpose of playing what you’re playing is you’ve got to communicate something. You have to speak to the audience.
When you’re playing in a club, the bandstand isn’t usually that far off the ground. So the audience can look you in the eye, and you can look them in the eye. If you immediately bypass that communication, you’ve totally damaged the performance. I really believe it’s my job to go out there and work for my money. So when you see me in front of an audience, believe you me, I’m doing everything I can-There’s no posturing there.
When I came up, punk rock was the art. As it progressed, it became more and more remote. Artists spent more time in the studio and less time in front of the audience. People began saying, "This music just doesn’t speak to me, at all." Some musicians began saying, "Let’s go get a gig at that bar." And the audience was saying, like-"WOW! That was great." I got that musician’s sweat on me.
When I started playing jazz, it was pretty much the same feeling. I remember going to see Mose Alison. It was the middle of the week. There were about forty people in the audience and you could see his face, you could see his hands. You could see the way he was meeting eyes with the musicians. It was like being part of something intimate. You got to be together and be intimate. And the jazz I like best is the jazz that really communicates that feeling to me, lives in that space. It’s rare to go to jazz in a concert setting and have it work as well as in a bar setting because of that feeling of closeness to the band.
JazzReview: I understand you had one of those moments, let’s see, they called it-career suicide.
Skip Heller: Yeah. Somebody just basically said, "You’re making records the wrong way. If you do this, you’ll be fine, but if you continue the way you’re going, it’s systematic career suicide."
JazzReview: And didn’t that album win you a Grammy?
Skip Heller: No, it didn’t win a Grammy but, that was on the ten-best list. That was when I became known, instead of locally un-known in Los Angeles. I became someone who was courting International obscurity."
There were these releases in Holland, England, Italy, Germany and the U.S. That was the first time people paid attention in a certain way. It was also the first time I made was written in magazines that I was already buying.
JazzReview: Let me ask you about your guitar. Do you have a favorite-one that just plain fits you?
Skip Heller: Yes, it’s a black Squire Duo-sonic, which is the cheapest guitar made by any guitar company.
When I was a kid, I was a terrific fan of Steely Dan. I still am now. Ulter Becker is still one of my favorite guitar players. And if you look inside the label of the Steely Dan album, Asia, there’s a picture of him playing a Fender Duo-sonic. So from the time I was in high school, I always wanted a Fender Duo-sonic. On a couple of occasions, I had a Music Master, a Fender Music Master, which was almost a Duo-sonic. And I had a Fender Mustang for a moment, which is also almost a Duo-sonic.
Years later, I was in a music store with my wife and lo and behold, they had a Duo-sonic on the wall. The Fender Company had started making them again. Three weeks later she presented me with this guitar. I took it over to Ed Bowen at Freeding Guitars and said, "Set it up for me." Which he did. And after that, I couldn’t walk past that guitar. The neck’s a little shorter than most, and it’s a maple neck, which I always liked anyway.
I’ve been through a lot of guitars over the years. And, each guitar has a different effect on your playing because of the width of the neck or the physical characteristics of the guitar. How deep the body is, the width of the neck, all those things go into making the particular tones. Each involves you differently physically. I stand up when I play, and I think that has a tremendous effect on how I sound. The difference between standing up and sitting down is really pronounced.
JazzReview: Because it projects your work better or because you’re so involved with it?
Skip Heller: It allows you to become more involved in it because your whole physicality is involved - your legs, your knees, your shoulders are allowed to move around more. Like on this record, it’s the first time I stood up in the studio.
JazzReview: And it shows because your work is outstanding.
Skip Heller: Well, thank you
JazzReview: Now, that you’re with Hyena Records, do you plan to re-release any of your earlier CDs which lacked exposure?
Skip Heller: I hadn’t gotten that far. I think the next CD will consist of my own compositions.
JazzReview: Time ended this interview. Skip Heller knows his music. He knows how it began and he knows where it is today. AND, he knows how to make an audience melt. Heller knows about the great artists---he just hasn’t figured out he is one of them. His bio is worth reading at his website link, listed below. You may also find Heller’s outstanding CD Fake Book at HyenaRecords.com.