With all the attention Jimmy Herring has gotten in the past 10 years or so for playing lead guitar with the titans of the jam scene (Phil, The Dead, Panic, and don’t forget his Summer 2000 stint with the Allman Bros. right after Dickey left), it has been easy for many to peg him as a hired gun with awesome chops to spare, but perhaps lacking his own musical vision. With his painfully long-overdue solo album, Lifeboat (Abstract Logix), Herring finally puts that rumor to rest once and for all.
It has been long established that Herring is one of the finest guitarists performing today. But aside from his blistering, melodic leads in whichever band he’s playing with, what does a Jimmy Herring solo outing sound like? The answer is top-notch, lyrical Fusion. Think Mahivishnu Orchestra chilled out considerably, replace the violin with jazz flute then add a fine melodicism and groove. Lifeboat is a welcome album coming at a time which is conspicuously lacking in any quality Fusion, and it certainly is worthy to carry the torch ’70s jazz-rock legends have passed on.
For his core backing band, Herring stayed close to home, recruiting fellow Aquarium Rescue Unit alumnae Jeff Sipe on drums, Oteil Burbridge on bass, Kofi Burbridge on flute and keyboards, along with keyboardist Matt Slocum and sax-man Greg Osby (cohort Derek Trucks also trades licks on two tracks). With such an all-star band of virtuosos, one could expect that the music to be a bit busy and inaccessible, like some early ARU was considered. But, Herring and co. have matured considerably since their days with Colonel Bruce. The instrumental compositions on Lifeboat are complex but soulful, straddling the line between jazz and rock. When he really breaks out the searing licks on more raucous tracks like opener “Scapegoat Blues” or the funky “One Strut,” Herring will have you gasping for breath at his ability to make such clear harmonic statements at such a breakneck speed. This means none of the soulless shred-fests that some lesser guitar “virtuosos” are known for cranking out (here’s looking at you, Vai). On other slower, more straight-ahead jazz tracks like “New Moon,” or the Wayne Shorter composition “Lost,” Herring’s playing is subtle in its delicate treatment of the song itself. But, that’s not to say we’re not denied his lovely bursts of melodic runs at any point. Herring’s stunning guitar work is always at the forefront, as it should be.
It must be said that there is not one straight-ahead rock track on the album outside of the epic climax to “Lifeboat Serenade,” and Herring wouldn’t have it any other way. Most every song is a challenging composition, but Herring’s virtuosity makes it all sound easy, coaxing melodies out of strange chord progressions like few else can. In this sense, the album can be taken at different levels. Those proficient in jazz theory undoubtedly will be in deeper awe of the album’s advanced progressions and scales. Meanwhile, the rest of us will hear and feel the soaring beauty and warmth that Herring’s playing elicits, while simultaneously having our heads completely spun by the music’s complexity. And that probably sums up the genius of Jimmy Herring the best – In his mastery of the electric guitar, he is able to combine the cerebral with the soulful, and mash them together into one blissful element. Lifeboat succeeds in doing just that, and in doing so provides us with a long-overdue window into Herring’s head (and heart).
Catch the Jimmy Herring Band (Burbridge, Sipe, Osby, Scott Kinsey) on tour this spring and summer. See dates here.
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