Jimmy Herring – Lifeboat
Guitarist Jimmy Herring has spent most of his illustrious career as a sideman. His stellar playing with bands such as Aquarium Rescue Unit, Phil Lesh and Friends, The Grateful Dead, and most recently Widespread Panic, has solidified his reputation as the preeminent guitarist to come out the jam band scene. Arguably his most interesting work has been with some of the side-project bands he has played and recorded with; bands such as Project Z, Jazz is Dead, Frogwings, The Dragonflys, and the like. With these bands, Herring has had a bit more room to stretch out harmonically. Listening to Herring improvise, especially with these often fusion-oriented side projects, I’ve always had the hunch that he had some serious jazz chops just waiting to come out. Now that I’ve heard Herring’s debut solo album Lifeboat (Abstract Logix), that hunch has become the understatement of the year.
Lifeboat is unquestionably a jazz record. There are a couple of fusion tunes here, but make no mistake, this is a deep, highly melodic jazz album – not a guitar-heavy shredder album; not a Project Z-style jam fusion album. In other words, this is a side of Jimmy Herring you’ve rarely if ever heard before. Oteil Burbridge (Bass), Kofi Burbridge (Flute, Piano, Keyboards), and Jeff Sipe (Drums) form the core band backing Herring on the disc. These are four friends who have known and played with each other for years. The impressive list of special guests includes Derek Trucks (Slide Guitar), Greg Osby (Sax), Matt Slocum (Keyboards), Bobby Lee Rodgers (Leslie and Rhythm Guitar), Ike Stubblefield (Hammond B3), Tyler Greenwell (Drums), and Scott Kinsey (Keyboards).
One thing you’ll quickly notice is Herring never hogs the spotlight on Lifeboat, and the other musicians involved (especially Kofi Burbridge) have a strong influence of the final outcome. In fact, when I first got wind of this project late last year, the plan was to record a band album with Derek Trucks appearing on the entire disc, as opposed to just the two tracks he ultimately played on. When it turned out Trucks would not be able to contribute to the entire recording, the focus shifted and the album became the Herring solo record that it is now.
Many of Herring’s professed influences can be detected on this disc. Several tunes have a Dixie Dregs vibe, and Herring’s lines often feature John Scofield-style triadic ideas. The real surprise here is the overall mood and direction of the album; this is some heavy jazz, loaded with soaring melodies and deep harmony. It gives Herring a chance to show the full breadth of his vocabulary as an improviser – nowhere in his back catalog will you find him playing over changes to the extent that he does here.
There are only two songs on Lifeboat that I would call fusion – the opening track Scapegoat Blues, and the deep-grooving One Strut. Scapegoat Blues is an upbeat tune that mixes blues and diminished tonalities in a fun way. It’s loaded with strong blues phrases, and those intervallic sixteenth-note lines Herring is well known for. This is the type of tune you would expect to hear on a Herring solo album, which makes it a great choice for the opener. One Strut offers a big stylistic shift in the middle of the disc. Clearly the funkiest tune on the album, if Bernie Worrell joined the Dregs, they might produce a song like this. I could see this tune fitting in well on the Endangered Species album Herring recorded some years back with T Lavitz.
Only When It’s Light is one of two Lifeboat songs written by the multi-talented Kofi Burbridge. This is a gorgeous piece that prominently features Kofi’s flute and piano work. As the second song on the album, it’s a great heads-up to the listener that you’re in for some serious jazz on this record. Kofi also wrote the album’s closer Splash – a song that previously appeared on the Aquarium Rescue Unit album In a Perfect World (though Herring didn’t play on that version). A complex tune with some great lines by Herring, Splash is a good example of the kind of straight-ahead jazz that lesser players from the jam-band world would not be able to pull off.
Derek Trucks contributes his ever-impressive slide work to New Moon and Lifeboat Serenade. New Moon is a deliberately paced, lyrical ballad that at times has shades of the Dregs classic What If. The interplay between Herring and Trucks late in the tune is one of the album’s highlights. The lyricism continues with Lifeboat Serenade, an emotionally charged melancholic piece which features Herring’s most dramatic solo on the disc.
Herring tackles Walt Disney (!) with a jazzed-up take on the Jungle Book Overture. Yes, that Jungle Book. It seems like an out-of-left-field choice, but the changes lend themselves to some great lines courtesy of Herring, Greg Osby, and Kofi Burbridge. One of the heaviest jazz excursions on the album is a great version of the Wayne Shorter piece Lost. Herring, Osby, and Burbridge team up again on the main melody’s three-part harmony. The chord changes on this tune are tough, but Herring is more than up to the task.
Transients is a borderline fusion tune that packs a Steely Dan vibe, and a beautiful set of chords. Bassist Oteil Burbridge takes a great solo on this song, as does Herring who peels off some rare legato runs. The slow and sad Gray Day is a mesmerizing piece where Herring improvises in an almost introspective manner over the entire song. It’s another song with seemingly difficult changes, but Herring navigates them with ease.
Had Jimmy Herring’s first solo album been a jam band-meets-fusion record, ala Project Z, I don’t think anyone would have complained or been surprised. I for one loved the first Project Z album – more of that stuff would be fine by me. But Herring has gone down that road before; why go there again when given the chance to make his own album? Lifeboat shows that Herring has a deep love for jazz, and he’s very adept at playing that style of music. Without question, this is one of the most inventive, fresh, and moving jazz releases of the year, and it’s a huge triumph for Herring.
Jimmy Herring – Lifeboat (Abstract Logix)
1. Scapegoat Blues
2. Only When It’s Light
3. New Moon
4. Lifeboat Serenade
5. One Strut
6. Jungle Book Overture
9. Gray Day