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Published: 2006/05/18
by Dean Budnick

Jimmy Herring: Let it Z

Later this month, Jimmy Herring will return to the clubs for a series of gigs with a new band that also features his longtime collaborator Jeff Sipe and a more recent foil, The Codetalkers’ Bobby Lee Rodgers. The following interview conducted during the initial phase of that project, also addresses Herring’s years with Phil & Friends and the release of the Project Z disc, two years after the passing of Herring’s partner in Z, Ricky Keller. Next month, we’ll get another angle on Herring/Rodgers/Sipe (as well as some insight into the health of Col. Bruce Hampton, along with the latest on the Codetalkers) when we speak with Bobby Lee Rodgers.

_For a look back at the life and music of the late Ricky Keller, check out
our interview with Jimmy and Ricky from September 2001, as well as Jimmy’s thoughts soon after Keller died of a heart attack in June 2003

DB- Now that you’ve been off the road as of late, what has been your musical focus?

JH- Mostly just writing and recording, doing preproduction for the next album. It’ll involve Jeff Sipe and Bobby Lee Rodgers. Right now I’m not sure who the bass player is going to be but I’m pretty sure we’re going to use a pedal steel player. That’ll probably be the instrumentation: two guitars, bass, drums, pedal steel.

I’m not what you call a prolific writer but I’ve spent most of my time working for other people trying to bring something to what they already had. As a result, I feel like I haven’t spent enough time trying to compose myself. So it’s slow and steady but it’s going good. I just recorded four songs over at a friend’s home studio in order to get the ideas on tape, as part of preproduction. And as I sat down to write them at least two songs out of the four were written with a pedal steel player in mind. I want to hear the pedal steel in a different role. Most of the time you hear it in country-type music. I want to see it sort of like a keyboard player in a different context, laying chord pads because it’s just liquid, that beautiful liquid sound the steel has.

DB- How did this particular project come about?

JH- Me and Bobby Lee Rodgers have been talking for a while about doing something. I went out in April and played some gigs with the Codetalkers, and I played with them again in August. I love playing with them. That dude is a songwriting machine, he’s got over 200 of his own tunes. I like the tunes and I really dig where he’s coming from and I’m really interested in working with him. If you’ve heard the Codetalkers Deluxe Edition album I don’t really understand why people haven’t jumped all over that thing because it has so many good songs on it.

I’m not a good judge of what a hit song is but if you ask me, there’s five hit songs on that record. “Body in the Lake,” I went and played with these guys and the people who are there are singing the whole song with Bobby, the chorus and the verses. They love the tune. And then there’s that song “Beggin,” that song is amazing. He’s got a bunch of that stuff.

DB- I am with you there. It will be interesting to see what happens with the next Codetalkers release. Maybe radio will finally catch up.

JH- I’m really thrilled that to hear that you’re digging him because I feel so connected to this guy. We’re both from the south, we both studied and then looked around us and went, “Wait a minute, we don’t want to play to a bunch of arm crossers, we want to play to people.” So both of us have studied in a lot of different contexts and we like different types of music and we don’t draw any line between them, we just like music.

But both of us have been in the position where the only people at our gigs are other guitar players and their girlfriends and the girlfriends really want to leave. I haven’t been in that position for a long time but at the time I was referring to, the music wasn’t reaching the average person. That’s what I dig about the Dead, playing with Phil Lesh. They’ve got grandmothers and they’ve got eight year olds in the audience and all of them love it. Man, that’s cool. You must be doing something right if you’re reaching all those people.

DB- We’re you originally going to tour with Bobby and Jeff Sipe back in the fall?

JH- That was supposed to happen in September and it didn’t work because the places where we were going to play I had played with the Codetalkers only a month before. So the promoters were not real happy and that’s why it didn’t happen.

DB- That’s unfortunate.

JH- Yeah but it’s okay. Now I’ve got more time. I’m devoting most of it to writing and getting these tunes down. Bobby has come over quite a bit. He has quite a busy schedule, he’s out with the Codetalkers a lot but he comes over when he has a moment and I give him CDs of what I’ve been working on it and he’s taking them and writing lyrics. I’m really excited to see what he’s going to come up with. I’ve given him four tunes and I haven’t heard any of it yet but we talk every day. He’s working on it, so I’m excited.

DB- Did you know him before he started working with Bruce?

JH- I didn’t but that’s another thing we have in common, this is like his sixth year with Bruce and I played with Bruce about six years. There’s nothing that surprises Bobby or me. We can handle any situation because if you play with Bruce, come on, nothing’s going to shock you: “You’re going to sleep in this hut tonight, there’s no electricity but you can take a bath in the river in the morning.”

DB- How familiar were you with his music before you went on the road last year and did those gigs with the Codetalkers?

JH- Well Bruce had been inviting me to come and play and finally I said, “I’ve got some time off, when do you want do it?” And he said, “How about April?” I was totally on board but I called Bobby and said, “I don’t want to be the guy who’s sitting in, doesn’t know the songs and is just playing solos on your tunes. I don’t want to be that guy, so please send me some music so I can learn it.”

This was about a month before the shows in April. That’s when I finally got fairly familiar but he’s got so much, I’m only scratching the tip of the iceberg. He sent me the Deluxe Edition album which I’d heard before but I hadn’t really had a chance to listen to it because every time I tried to hear it, people were talking to me. You know, you might be out somewhere and someone says, “Hey check this album out” and then they put it on and then they want to talk to you while you’re listening to it. So I never really got a chance to hear it until he sent it to me and I was down here in my basement and I was blown away. It was really well done, very intelligently put together and some of it is not easy to solo over. I had to spend a lot of time practicing the chord progressions. Some of it is pretty challenging.

Then he gave me another CD with 20 cuts on it that was the result of one day in the studio with the Codetalkers. It didn’t have any vocals on it yet and it didn’t have any overdubs, it was just a three piece. It was Bobby, Ted the bass player and Tyler the drummer. They had done 20 songs in one day and they were finished songs except for putting the vocals on. Man, they were so good and again that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So basically I learned those 20 songs and the songs on the record. Then when we were on the road he would throw new ones at me at sound check and stuff like that. I’m like, “Is there no end to your pit of tunes? You have this bottomless pit of creativity, it’s incredible.”

DB- Changing gears somewhat, late last year in a statement on his web site, Phil Lesh indicated that “in order to take advantage of other musical opportunities that have come his way, Jimmy Herring will now be moving on a little earlier.” Is it fair to say that your current project with Bobby Lee represents those “other musical opportunities.”

JH- I guess that’s fair to say. Let me just add that I love those people. I love Phil and I love that whole family. My years of playing with them, it was unbelievable. It was like a gift, that’s the way I look at that. Nothing’s meant to be forever and the point came when I felt it was time for me to pursue some of these other things I was telling you about before because it’ll never happen if I don’t do it.

I’m not a person who’s very good at spreading myself thin. I have to do one thing at a time. So when I was playing with Phil, 100% of my undivided attention went to that. To me that’s what you’ve got to do if you’re playing music of that magnitude. Just the sheer volume of the catalog alone is enough to keep you from drifting off and doing too many other things if you’re going to do it and give it your all. So I knew if I was going to give this my all, then I could not have anything else around.

I spent hours upon weeks upon months and years studying this music and man this music it’s never-ending lesson to be learned and you can study it for years on end and always find something new that you didn’t know before. That’s one of the things that makes it so beautiful.

DB- Now that some time has passed, looking back, what would you say is the most significant thing you took away from that experience?

JH- In a word: songs. I’ve played mostly with people where songs weren’t the issue. The main thing was improvisation and pushing yourself technically, harmonically. And then when I started playing them my whole focus had to shift from that to “Oh my god I’ve got to learn 200 songs.” That’s the biggest lesson and I’m so grateful for that.

This record that we’re going to be doing, it’s all about the songs. Some people might be disappointed because it’s not going to be a display of technique on every song. People have heard me do that, we released the Project Z record not too long ago. But that’s just one part of what I want to do. Now I want to take what I’ve learned playing with Phil and the Dead and put it toward these songs and let the songs be the most important thing. That’s what I want to do now. Of course it’s just one project, I’m going to keep my feelers out ready for anything but right now that’s the important thing, completing this record. I’m thrilled to have something that’s unlike anything I’ve ever done.

DB- Speaking of the Project Z disc, that was a long time coming. Can you talk a bit about the process of finally releasing Lincoln Memorial?

JH- There were a number of things there. One of them is that we never intended to release it. That was just us having fun. Our friend Jim Zumpano who has a studio [Zac] in Atlanta, was kind enough to offer us a day there. We didn’t have any tunes and that’s not what Z was about. We hadn’t played together in a long time, so we went in there to knock the dust off it and play a little bit together and have fun. I think our plan originally was, “We’re going to play a little bit and then we’re going to try to write cohesive tunes.” I had some tapes of us performing live and in those tapes of those live performances there was ideas and germs, the nucleus for a lot of songs.

So what we were going to do was break out that tape and say, “That groove, let’s write a tune around that.” We were going to do this while we were in his studio but once we started playing, we couldn’t stop. It was the first time we had played together in a long while, we couldn’t stop, and they recorded everything we did. We were laughing, goofing and having a good time with no plan to release it. It never even entered my mind and then maybe two months after it was recorded, Ricky sent me this mix of it. He had done a quick mix.

DB- Of the entire session?

JH- Yes the entire three and half hour session. So I started listening to it and I couldn’t stop laughing. Part of it was kicking my ass and another part of it was just stupid, just us being silly and I remember thinking, “Man you know, some of this stuff is good enough to release.” So we started talking, and saying, “Maybe we can make it cohesive enough to release.” So we started editing it. The editing process was when Ricky [Keller] passed away.

Two nights before the Bonnaroo gig in 2003 with the Dead, I was editing that record with Ricky. Then the day of the Bonnaroo gig I got a call and it was Bruce saying that Ricky was in the hospital and he’d had a massive heart attack. So I talked with Ricky on the phone. He said that he was going to be fine and he couldn’t wait for me to get back so we could finish editing the record. It was clear to me that it meant a lot to him. So after he passed away, I couldn’t even listen to it.

Ricky was the instigator of a lot of those musical tangents. Ricky was such a brilliant musician and the bass was unimportant. Ricky was someone who could transcend his instrument to the point where it didn’t matter if he was playing French horn or a glockenspiel. I love that about him.

So maybe another year went by before I finally woke up one day and said, “You know, this is just too important not to put out there.” As goofy as it is, it was important music to us and it was Ricky’s last recorded performance. So I thought, “Well, I’ll just finish editing it and get it mixed and find out if there’s anyone crazy enough to put it out.” And Souvik from Abstract Logix heard it and said, “Man, I’ll put it out right now.” That’s why it took so long from the time it was recorded.

DB- Some of the extended pieces on Lincoln Memorial have been divided up, at least in terms of tracking. Unlike say Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way which has two tracks, you’ve taken some of the extended pieces here and subdivided them, if only by assigning them titles. What accounts for that?

JH- The first piece on the Z record is actually the first four tracks. Ricky felt that he wanted to put what he called locate points, so that if someone likes this thing in the middle but didn’t like the first fifteen minutes he wouldn’t have to hold the fast forward down. That was the whole idea and Ricky felt it was important to do that.

DB- Greg Osby wasn’t part of original recording. You brought him in later. What was your intention and how did he approach it?

JH- Here was the plan. We had wanted him to be at the original session but he was in Europe and again we didn’t have any idea that this was going to be a record. So once this was done, I called him and said, “We’ve got this thing. There are no songs, it’s just a lot of improvisation. What would you think about coming in and taking one pass at it?” And he said, “Man, I’ve done a lot of records where I wasn’t on the original recording. I’ve done records in the mail where people send me the tape.” I said, “I know you can do it, I just didn’t know if you wanted to do it.” Well he said yes and it turned out he was coming in town to play at this little jazz bar right next to the Fox Theater in Atlanta. So we flew him in one day early.

He came in to the studio we let the tape roll. He took one pass and that’s what you heard. There were one or two things I played that almost sounded like a cohesive written thing and I got him to double one or two of them. There’s this little “nanny nanny boo boo” kind of thing (he sings it). I played that melody and it was real natural and I thought, “Man if you double that, it would be hilarious.” So he learned that lick which I didn’t even know because I’d never played it before but we figured it out and we went back and played that. There were one or two places like that, there weren’t a lot. So he took a live pass at the whole thing with no fix ups and then I got him to double one or two of the parts.

DB- Did you first meet him through Phil & Friends?

JH- Yes but I was familiar with him long before I ever played in Phil & Friends. Jeff Sipe tuned me on to Greg Osby years before I ever met Phil. Then when Phil and I did meet and we talked about some of the music we really liked, Greg Osby's name came up. I said, “I love Greg Osby,” and Phil goes, “He’s my favorite contemporary saxophonist.”

So then I have a friend Brad Riseau who was his publicist and was at a lot of Phil shows. I told him that Phil loves Greg Osby and then Greg's name was mentioned by Phil in a Rolling Stone article. So Greg called Phil to thank him for mentioning his name and Phil said, “Hey, we’re playing Phili next week, why don't you come sit in with us?” And he did.

Greg and I instantly connected when we were playing with Phil. We always talked about doing something together, I’m really enamored of him. He’s on a musical level that to my mind is way up there. I’m scared of him (laughs) He’s on another plane. He’s on plane where I hope someday I can get to. So there’s a lot of fear when I play with him. I just respect his music so much.

DB- Do you think you’ll ever do live dates or a touring project with him?

JH- Yeah I think that’s distinct possibility some day. I don’t know when. I want to do a record with horn players. I know a bunch of great horn players. Greg is the best alto player I know but I know this tenor player name Bryan Lopes in town who is as good as anyone alive. I’d love to get him and Greg together on a record but that will probably be down the road.

DB- Will you any Project Z shows in the future, perhaps even as some sort of tribute to Ricky?

JH- No because Project Z can’t be without Ricky. Project Z is no longer and I made sure Souvik knew that before he put the record out. We were going to go and play a couple of gigs around the release of the record with Matt Garrison and me and Sipe and Bobby Lee but it wasn’t going to be us playing Project Z material, it was going to be a completely different thing. But we were going to try to be visible during the album's release just to help Souvik out a little bit. I don’t want him to lose on this thing. But the idea of going out and playing that music, well obviously we can’t recreate it but the idea of doing it without Ricky

That Z factor will be there in everything I do but it’ll never be the focus of the music again. The focus of the music with Ricky was that we didn’t have any tunes. That was the premise of it, to play without songs. But the idea of trying to do that without Ricky, man, I can’t even think about it. Who knows, though, maybe someday I’ll change my mind.

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