The Skip Heller Quartet
"Skip Heller is for real." -- Joel Dorn
1. From The Night Before (Heller)
2. Meydele (Heller)
3. Time After Time (Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne)
4. Nika's Dowry (Heller)
5. Emily Remler (Heller)
6. Funeral March From Mahler, Symphony #5 (adaptation: Heller)
7. The 'Intensive' Girl (Heller)
8. I Just Keep Lovin' Her (Little Walter Jacobs)
9. Thinking Of You (Terry Adams)
PRODUCED AND ARRANGED BY SKIP HELLER
Skip Heller: guitar Robert Drasnin: clarinet, alto saxophone, Mike Bolger: organ Howard Greene: drums
special guests: Lee Toft: trumpet (1, 6) Dave Alvin: vocals (3, 8)
recorded by Steven Bardo at Painted Sound, Van Nuys, CA, except 2 & 9, recorded by David Orser at AIM, Tujunga, CA. Mastering: Bob De Maa Photography: Laurie Seniuk
This is a disc of my memories. I came up in Philadelphia playing jazz from the early to the mid 1980's. How magic the time and place really was, I don't know. But, as Curtis Mayfield said, I intend to stay a believer.
Of the bars where I learned my craft back then, only Bob and Barbara's is still in the phone book. All That Jazz, Sir Winston's, Club La Zorra, and all those other holes in the wall have gone the way of all things temporal.
If you had to pick an official jazz sound of Philly, it would probably be the organ combo. More great B-3 players came out of Philly than any other city -- Shirley Scott, Groove Holmes, Don Patterson, Joey DeFrancesco, Trudy Pitts, Jimmy McGriff, Bill Doggett, and the King, Jimmy Smith. All products of the 215 area code. There were some other cats, like Luther Randolph, who deserved recognition they never got past 15th and South, but that's a whole other thing.
The organ combo was perfect for me. I came up through the local folk and punk rock scenes, obsessed with old country and rhythm'n'blues. My heroes were the Blasters and Mose Allison. By 1983, I was working in jazz clubs three nights a week (and sleeping through three days a week of high school). By the following year, when I graduated, it was at least three and often five nights, with at least one Jewish wedding most weekends. I liked party music, and the bars where the organ was the center of the action were a perfect blend of jazz and rhythm'n'blues. You played lots of standards ("April In Paris", "Canadian Sunset" and that type of thing) and old rhythm'n'blues staples. The guitar had a strong role in the sound, too. The audience tended to shout their approval in the middle of your solo if you were getting over.
High-minded musical adventure such as the 1960's Miles Davis Quintet pioneered was not the format in these bars. If you want something on that level of art, you generally don't go to a bar where the specialty of the house is malt liquor in a can. These were working class bars, usually catering to people at least in their forties, and generally African-American. I never felt conspicuous for being white. If you were in the band and you could play the tunes, that wasn't an issue. But the fact that I was young -- that made me feel conspicuous. Players would always call tunes they thought you wouldn't know, in uncomfortable keys, and often at tempos too fast to count coherently. If you saw The Decline Of Western Civilization, think of the tempo of the Circle Jerks' "Red Tape", and you'll know what I mean exactly.
It wasn't cruelty. It was part of coming up. The Fraternity Of Musicians was like any other -- the new guy always got hazed. And the older players, once they saw you were sincere, that you were working at the music, they took it upon themselves to educate you. Everything from "you can substitute the five minor seventh for the one chord" to "always pack your uniform on top."
Those guys liked me because I knew "Flyin' Home" (the Lionel Hampton arrangement with the key change), "Honky Tonk" (and you had to play the guitar solo note for note, which I did), "I Love You, Yes I Do", and all that kind of stuff. I'd have old-timers come up to me on the breaks complaining about how their kids or grandkids didn't want to know from that era of rhythm'n'blues, how they only liked "that rap shit", and I kept my mouth shut about how much I liked LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash. (I was a fan of a lot of things that weren't really part of that world. )
Fortunately, there was a whole other scene, with players like Heath Allen, who (in 1983, way before it was in vogue) was bringing charts to Nina Rota's Fellini music to play on the gig. He was the first guy I ever played with who brought original tunes to the job, and he's a fantastic composer. His touch was so warm and full. Even when he kept things sparse, there was something lush there.
With guys like Heath, I played in the Center City wine bars. They didn't serve malt liquor. They had wine lists, and the music was generally duos -- a piano player and another guy. I was pretty often the other guy.
Heath influenced me deeply in a variety of ways. My first mentor in that world was a guy named Eric Spiegel, who, like Heath, had a penchant for Bill Evans, which was pretty typical of the piano players around Philly at the time. Between the two of them, I got a solid grounding. With the organ bars, I had more of an opportunity to play aggressively. It was a nice balance, and I felt blessed to be around so many different players with so many different approaches.
The other guy I stumbled onto was Uri Caine, who has since become internationally praised, largely for his post-modern adaptations of classical music. He wasn't famous then, but he was definitely someone to be reckoned with. The first time I heard him, I thought I had found my own personal jazz version of the Sex Pistols. He was the most advanced player -- technically, harmonically, and in terms of having his own style -- I ever came across, and he was the most open-minded guy I'd ever met. When I told him about my punk rock days, he immediately said "Do you have Velvet Underground records? I need to hear that stuff. I'll come over Sunday and we'll listen to all their records."
And he came over and sat through it all. He taught me about twentieth century [classical] music, Joe Henderson, Glenn Gould, Herbie Hancock, and most of the really important jazz of the sixties. I let him in on X, the Stickmen, Joe Bataan, and a few other things. I got the better end of the deal.
Heath, at the same time, was turning me on to Andrew Hill, Charles Mingus, and Sun Ra. He taught me about something really important -- the idea of composers who make and inhabit their own musical worlds. I found my way to others like that, especially Dave Brubeck and Carla Bley.
In 1986, I formed my first group (Jeff Stabley on drums and the late Brian Christie on bass), and that led to many more groups. Bars opened and closed, just like they always do, and I played in some of them. By 1988, most of the places where I came up were closed, or had at least stopped having music. Philly went through periods where there were lots of places to play, then no places to play. I drifted around the Philly scene until I moved to LA at the end of 1995.
I wound up leading a septet these last few years, which was extravagant. First of all, not much money divided seven ways is... you do the math. Secondly, with three horn players and a pianist in the group, plus the concentration it takes with lead a band that size, guitar solos were a low priority.
Finally, I decided I needed a trio, if we were gonna make any money and I was gonna get back into playing the guitar.
To guitar players from Philly, "trio" usually means organ. I started to jam with Mike Bolger (who up till then I used exclusively on trumpet) at his house, with different drummers coming over. When Howard came by, it felt like a band. After a few gigs, we were a band. Then Bob asked if he could play alto, and we were even a quartet.
I loved Bolger's organ playing from the jump. He seemed to be influenced more by Sun Ra than Jimmy Smith, which I thought was really cool, because I've usually heard organists play out of Jimmy Smith or Larry Young. Mike sounded like Mike. He's definitely an idiosyncratic voice on his instrument.
So am I. When I was coming up, Grant Green had not found his way back into fashion, but I was a devotee pretty early on, because a legendary Philly record store guy, Craig Baylor, knew exactly what I needed to hear. I was into Grant, Bill Jennings, and James Blood Ulmer. Grant, with those beautiful long, singing lines, was the most refined of the bunch. Bill and Blood went for the short, bluesy kill.
There was a guy in town named Bert Payne, and he was another huge influence on me. I already knew about him because he was the guitar player on all the Louis Jordan stuff cut for Aladdin (he had, in fact, replaced Bill Jennings in Louis' band and had even been Jennings' roommate).
Bert played that 1951 style. He was blues based, but he knew enough about harmony to make the chord changes sing. He bent strings, glissando'd, drenched everything in reverb, and always made you feel the rhythm in your feet. He was, to me, the king of organ combo guitar players. I never heard him play anything I didn't love. One night, I brought a little tape recorder and taped all his solos over four sets. I played him for this Berklee grad I knew.
"Dave! You gotta hear this guy! He's the shit!" I played the tape, and there was Bert. I must have had this look on my face, because Dave the Berklee grad laughed and said: "You like this?! No wonder you can't play! You need to listen to Mike Stern or Allan Holdsworth. That's the happening shit."
But to me, what Bert played was the stuff. I still catch myself playing things that were on that tape. Bert would grouse, "I can't play anything modern", but I didn't care. He played more great music on a given night that I can ever say, and he did it with fewer notes. When I heard him, T-Bone Walker, the Big John Patton albums with Blood Ulmer or Grant Green that Craig turned me onto, or the Wild Bill Davis Trio 78's with Bill Jennings, I knew what tradition I was part of.
As I've gotten older, I've realized that every player is his own tradition. I was born into a time that seemed to have been defined first by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, and I carried that into my own interests in everything from bluegrass music to Zappa, Little Walter, punk rock, and Henry Mancini. When I joined the ranks of the professional jazz musicians around Philly, I brought all that into the music I played. That stuff is my backbone. What I learned in those bars with the malt liquor -- that's my heart.
This disc is not a return back then. It's a tribute to all those influences, from the Beatles to Jewish weddings, the Blasters, standards, Uri, Heath, Little Walter, Bert Payne, and all the music and musicians along the way.
I live in Hollywood now, and there's no place I'd rather be. But I came up in Philly, and there's no place I'd rather be from.
July 14, 2001
Thank you to all the people who worked on this music and the package it came in. Thanks George Wendt for a great guitar, and Ed and Mark at Freedom Guitar for their fantastic work on my instruments. Thanks to Lee Joseph, Chris Montez, Richard Reese, Dennis and Jan Lacerte, the Beltrans, Heath Allen, Lalo Guerrero, Pete Esquinasi, Philbeau, Joey Spampinato, Tom Ardolino, & Jowe Interlande, and my darling Carole Simpson. Special thanks to Lori Lakin and Terry Adams. Extra special thanks to Philbeau. Above all thank you to my beautiful wife, Skye.
All the tunes written by Skip Heller are published by Skip Heller (BMI). "Time After Time" is published by Sands Music, ASCAP. "I Just Keep Loving Her" is under copyright control, and "Thinking Of You", which was commissioned by The Arts At St Ann's in 1994 for The Duplex Planet Radio Hour, is published by dollar clef, ASCAP, which is administered by BUG.
Howard Greene proudly endorses Allegra drums.
Dave Alvin appears courtesy of Hightone Records.
this disc is dedicated to the memory of Bert Payne, who passed away in May 1995, of kidney failure at the age of 78. You were the greatest.