Jimmy Herring’s event horizon

Herring dishes on Aquarium Rescue Unit’s legacy, learning to quit listening to guitar music and jamming with The Maestro.

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Jimmy Herring looks like Steve Morse. Except he doesn’t.
Courtesy of Melissa Dragich-Cordero/Mad Ink PR

Is that lawnmower bothering you?” Jimmy Herring asks during our phone interview a few weeks ago. “There’s a guy cutting the grass next door, wanted to be sure you could hear me.”

Nope, not a problem at all.

A minute or two later, “Oh man, I gotta move my car. I guess the lawnmower guy… oh, wait, no, I’m blockin’ someone in my driveway. Hey, Carter? You want me to move my car, I’m doin’ a… Chloe! How ya doin’? You guys heading out?”

Perhaps this phone call is a bit of an… intrusion.

“No, man,” he laughs. “That was my son’s girlfriend; we hadn’t seen her in a long time.”

So, that settles that. Jimmy Herring, one of the groove/fusion scene’s most respected players, has a one-car driveway and doesn’t have someone to manage it. That’s Jimmy for ya’.

Herring’s currently heading up another of his in-between projects, The Invisible Whip. He brings along two old friends and fellow Aquarium Rescue Unit (ARU) veterans, organist Matt Slocum and drummer Jeff Sipe (aka, “Apt Q258,” the still obscure nickname bestowed on Sipe by ARU’s founding mad genius Bruce Hampton.) The group has been touring sporadically this summer, interrupted by a few choice Widespread Panic dates where Herring has held the lead guitar seat for several years.

The road for Herring has been a twisting boulevard of improbabilities, a consistent test of genre-latitude facility for the once self-admitted Dixie Dregs fanatic from North Carolina.

If most established players are too fatigued to recite their own musical biographies, Herring does so without much prompting. It’s hardly boasting — it’s almost as if Herring, a maddeningly fluid and articulate soloist, one of the most naturally virtuosic players working these days, tells the story as if he’s trying to understand it himself.

ARU happened like this:

“I was in a band with Jeff Sipe, Oteil [Burbidge], Kofi [Burbidge] and a guy called Charlie Williams, from Atlanta. We had this band that never played a gig. We were rehearsing in Jeff Sipe’s basement. And Kofi and Oteil moved into his house as roommates. We never did a gig because you had to have, like, so much material to get a gig. And we were trying to do it all with original music.  So we never got enough music together to actually do a gig.

“During the time that was going on, Jeff Sipe had been playing with Bruce Hampton, just on the side. He started telling us how liberating it was. So next thing you knew, Oteil was playing with him. And then Oteil and Jeff kinda lost interest in our little basement band, because they found that liberating thing that Bruce had, and that thing where the more simple the music, the more freedom you had.

“So finally, I got the opportunity to sit in with them, and from the minute that happened, it just changed my life instantly… See, even though Sipe and Oteil and I had played together, we’d never really played together. We were doing all these compositions, which kind of reflected all kinds of progressive music, jazz fusion, whatever you want to call it. But we’d never played blues together. They didn’t know I liked blues, and I thought they’d be bored silly playing a two beat, like a bluegrass thing. I mean, Jeff was a virtuoso, why would he want to go bap-bap-bap-bap? They didn’t know I liked that kind of stink.

“So the first time I sat in with them, playing with Bruce, was very much like the first time we’d ever really played together. It was a total revelation.”

ARU had a solid run in the early ’90s when, propelled by their part-eccentric, part-virtuosic performances in clubs and as one of the early H.O.R.D.E. acts, they became icons of the emerging jam scene. Constant touring and exposure well beyond anything that Hampton himself envisioned (or even really wanted) eventually burned the group out. Hampton played the role of the eccentric roots MC, chipping blues riffs away on his SG or Stratocaster while his band galloped on soaring improvisational flourishes, usually coaxed back to earth by the leader when things started getting too cerebral, pulling the band back into his unique, Zappa-meets-Muddy Waters swamp.

Herring was one of the players, of course, present when Hampton collapsed and died this past May at his 70th birthday party benefit gig in Atlanta.

“Yeah. I was 10 feet away. It was… incredible. But you know, and this sounds like a cliché, but Bruce said it a lot in the time I knew him, that was how he wanted to go out.”

Herring moved on from the ARU days to play in Jazz is Dead, the Grateful Dead-fusion experiment assembled by producer Michael Gaiman. He got that connection through the late T Lavitz, former Dixie Dregs keyboardist. Herring had been to so many Dregs shows (“ … between ’78 and ’82, I must have been to at least a hundred Dregs shows… ”) that the band had a nickname for him: North Carolina.

“You know how they say that, after a while, people start to look like their pets? People started telling me that I looked like Steve Morse.” (Writer’s note: Apart from the blonde hair, he doesn’t.) “Even people who didn’t know I played guitar.”

Funny story, but for Herring it also belied a problem for him in his own musical development. He was simply listening to too much guitar music.

“You know, you gotta watch out for that. Alan Holdsworth, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson… these kind of guys are so infectious to a young musician’s mind … I found myself in that place where I didn’t really have my own identity, so I stopped listening to all guitar players and just started listening to horn players.

“I love Coltrane and Charlie Parker, Johnny Griffin, Lee Morgan. I love Herbie Hancock. All these cats, trying to draw inspiration from that place where you’re not getting it from the guy who plays the same instrument as you.”

Until, of course, you get that phone call. Y’know, the one where your idol calls you up and asks you to go out on tour with him.

Souvik Datta, founder and chief proprietor of Abstract Logix, arranged such a call for Herring last year. Herring thought it was a prank.

“Souvik called me one day and I thought he was goofing on me. The phone rang, and I knew it was Souvik’s number, and the voice on the other end said, ‘Hey Jimmy, this is John McLaughlin.’ So I said, ‘Sure it is, this is Miles Davis.’ And he laughed and he said, ‘No, this is really John McLaughlin.’”

Herring, still that long-haired guitar fanatic awestruck in the presence of stratospheric virtuosity, and now arguably old school fusion’s ambassador to the current jam-scene, called him “sir;” McLaughlin set about to make him feel at ease. 

“I know that John has always been interested in a lot of different musical dialects. I think he loves music from all cultures; I’m just not sure he’s ever worked with any hicks before.”

The plan is a twin bill — Herring’s band, then McLaughlin’s, then everybody on stage for a third set.

The inescapable parallel here is that McLaughlin himself broke internationally more than four decades ago in the band of another bandleader (Miles Davis) who also typically called fairly simple numbers and gave his players the freedom to find their own voices through the changes, coaxing their own nuances around the melodies. Bruce Hampton’s graduates are Herring, Oteil, Slocum and Sipe. Miles’ were McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter, Jack deJohnette and Herbie Hancock.

Two circles, aligning 40 years apart, both started orbiting around a single gravity well of gently disciplined liberation.

Where’s the intersection? Is Herring going back to learn (or re-learn) “The Dance of Maya,” “Birds of Fire,” “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love,” et al?

“Yeah, some of it. Whatever he wants to play. Some of it I’m familiar with… a lot of it I am, because I was a Mahavishnu junkie.

“But whatever he wants to do, we’ll do our best to be ready.”

On the Bill: Jimmy Herring & The Invisible Whip. 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 8 and Saturday, Sept. 9, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Tickets are $25 in advance for single-day, $30 for day-of-show; $45 for two-day pass.