Skip Heller

December 2, 2002


Innova 577

Graduate of the Philadelphia jazz-funk scene that in earlier years had produced the likes of Jimmy Smith, Trudy Pitts and Mr. C., Pat Martino, Richard “Groove” Holmes and a host of others, Hollywood-based guitarist/composer Skip Heller has designed this disc as a salute to his hometown.

Like his friend, pianist Uri Caine, who does something similar to traditional classical music, Heller gives the generic area code 215 organ quartet sounds a POMO fillip, adding elements of rock, blues, Cool jazz and even echoes of Henry Mancini. This is probably most obvious on his jazzy adaptation of the “Funeral March from Mahler, Symphony #5”, a common Caine trope as well. Besides turning the composer’s melancholy line into a jumping finger-snapper, he adds a long-lined blues guitar solo that most people would associate with Chicago harp blower Little Walter, whose “I Just Keep Lovin’ Her” is covered here as well, rather than Austrian Gustav Mahler.

Throughout the LP-length (less than 35 minutes), foot-tapping CD, the guitarist lets his variegated interests run wild, with tunes as likely to contain a Gamble-Huff horn line (“From The Night Before”) — played by alto saxophonist Robert Drasnin and trumpeter Dave Alvin — as Chitlin’ Circuit organ. Of course it helps that his keyboard man, Mike Bolger is as influenced by another Philly resident — Sun Ra — as more conventional organists.

Along the way Heller & Co., are able to overcome the limits of the generic instrumentation. “Meydele”, for instance, is a sliding, quasi-Kelzmer tune. Meanwhile “Emily Remler”, named for the late mainstream jazz guitarist, finds subtle, but cushiony organ tones accompanying Heller’s single note, Grant Green-like fills, as Drasnin produces feathery alto lines that could have floated straight out of Paul Desmond’s horn. Throughout, drummer Howard Greene knows when to lay on the power and when to lay back.

If this sort of jazz was usually played in a cocktail lounge, what would that watering hole be without a lounge lizard? On his two vocals — the Little Walter piece and Cahn and Styne’s “Time After Time” — former Blaster Dave Alvin plays that role to such perfection that you feel like washing the hair gel and tobacco stink off your cat clothes after hearing them.

There’s nothing terribly profound or earth shattering on this disc. It’s a relaxed listen, but just subversive enough musically so that you know you haven’t climbed into the Way-Back machine and returned to the Philly that is no more.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. From The Night Before* 2. Meydele 3. Time after Time+ 4. Nika’s Dowry 5. Emily Remler 6. Funeral March from Mahler Symphony #5* 7. The “Intensive” Girl 8. I Just Keep Lovin’ Her+ 9. Thinking of You

Personnel: Lee Toft (trumpet)*; Robert Drasnin (alto saxophone and clarinet); Skip Heller (guitar); Mike Bolger (organ); Howard Greene (drums); Dave Alvin (vocals)+