Though not a household name by any means —unless perhaps one has a devoted electric guitarist under their roof— Jimmy Herring is one of the most respected exponents of rock-oriented jazz fusion of this generation.
Gov’t Mule frontman (and Allman Brothers guitarist) Warren Haynes calls Herring “one of the finest guitar players in the world,” and his enviable skill at his instrument, coupled with his solid rep as an easygoing, open-minded cat has endeared him to the upper echelon of improv-based rock and jam artists. In fact, since first turning heads nationally in the late ‘80s as a founding member of Col. Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit, Herring has become something of the go-to guy when heavyweight acts such as the Allmans, Phil Lesh & Friends, The (Grateful) Dead and Widespread Panic —with whom he’s held down the role of lead guitarist since late 2006—are in need of a killer collaborator.
This Sunday, he appears at Trustees Theater for one of the first ever concerts billed under his own name. Backed by an all-star lineup of ace players including the Allman’s Oteil Burbridge on bass, ARU drummer Jeff Sipe on drums, keyboardist Scott Kinsey and saxman Greg Osby, the newly-formed Jimmy Herring Band is touring briefly in support of the guitarist’s debut “solo” album, Lifeboat.
I caught up with Herring for an extended and delightful phone interview.
Steve Morse was a key influence on your own approach to guitar. Can you remember your first introduction to his work?
Jimmy Herring: Yes, I can remember everything vividly. I got turned on to him when I was about 17, and at the time, you know, southern music was pretty popular. Some people from up north and other places would make fun of it, because, I guess southern rock kind of became a category. But when I came upon the Dixie Dregs’ What If album — that was a mind boggling, life changing record! It was undeniably southern, but very intelligent music. It hit me right between the eyes, man! I was blown away by how many styles you’d find on each album the Dregs did: there’d be a classical tune, a funk fusion tune, some hardcore rock and roll and even some stuff that was like electronic chamber music. I became a devoted fan. They were my band. I was a complete Dregs addict! They set me on a path and made me seek out musicians that played with a certain virtuosity.
Have you ever met or played with Steve?
Jimmy Herring: We’ve played together once or twice and of course I was terrified! He knows that he’s my man and I’ll tell anybody who will listen how great he is. (laughs)
Why do you think you have become sort of the first-draft guy when a killer band needs a baddass lead player?
Jimmy Herring: (laughs) God, man, you know I do not know and I couldn’t begin to understand how that has come to be! (laughs) I’m flattered and unbelievably grateful, but it’s a mystery to me. I’m thrilled to play with anyone who will have me. If anything, working with Bruce Hampton prepared me for life after Bruce. Not just his personality, but the lessons learned along the way. Just endless touring for years, and his tendeny to push us to play things we simply hadn’t played the night before. I didn’t even know what a jam-band was till about ten years ago, and I still don’t fully understand what that means. We always felt it was just a big melting pot. Then it became something of a genre unto itself and that’s hilarious to us! (laughs). Now I’m trying to feel comfortable doing my own album — which I never felt comfortable with before.
Jimmy Herring: I just never had the confidence to do it. See, I wrestle on a daily basis with this stuff. Music is a collaborative effort to me. I don’t look at it as one man’s vision. It’s hard for me to say, yeah, this is the Jimmy Herring Band. When I was a teenager, I had a band where I was the leader, but I wasn’t the favorite guy of the rest of the members. I’d rather be friends with someone than stand over their shoulder and boss them around. When you work as a sideman, you only have to have your own stuff together, and I was more up to that task. This record was not supposed to be my record. It was supposed to be a new band with me, Derek Trucks, Jeff Sipe and Oteil and Kofi Burbridge. But Derek was in a very busy situation and just couldn’t commit to it. The rest of the guys said you’ve never done your own record and you’re 47 years old. Just do it! (laughs) Panic was taking a little time off, so here we are. People come up and commend me for not hogging the spotlight on this disc, and I’m glad they some folks have picked up on the trancelike mood a lot of the tunes have in common. There was never any intention to tour, but the musicians expressed an interest in playing live, so I said okay. We haven’t even played a single gig yet and I’m already extremely nervous. (laughs)
Tell me a bit about what folks in Savannah can expect from this concert.
Jimmy Herring: I know there will be a large, open palette for improvisation. We’ll play songs, but we don’t wanna stop after each one. That’s what Phil (Lesh) would do when I played with him. There would be a jam to get us to the next song on the list, and it might last five minutes, or it might last 30 seconds! I’m hoping we can go at things without a net, but still have strong, good songs to fall back on.
You’ve played in Savannah before. Is there anything in particular you look forward to doing when you come to town?
Jimmy Herring: I love Savannah. The Aquarium Rescue Unit used to play Congress St. Station, and of course, Panic plays there in the Civic Center. Other than that, I haven’t really been there that much. I’m really looking forward to playing that venue. There’s a lot of things I love about that area in addition to the history of it, like the water and the fishing and the boating. I always wish I had more time there to do some of that stuff. Maybe next time!
SCAD & Wagatail Presents: The Jimmy Herring Band
When: Sun., 8 pm
Where: Trustees Theater
Cost: $23 - $26 at 525-5050
Info: trusteestheater.com, jimmyherring.net