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Pickin' with the locals
Friday, June 24, 2005
By LAWRENCE SPECKER
Los Angeles-based guitarist Skip Heller relates that California friends do sometimes ask him why he keeps coming back to Alabama every few months.
He has a clear answer, though, and it's mostly musical: "Because I get to play with Chris Spies[HEY YA'LL, THIS IS MY BUDDY FROM CODEN GREG SPIES' NEPHEW- CHRIS WAS VOTED # 1 LOCAL KEYBOARD PLAYER BY THE READERS OF LAGNIAPPE MAGAZINE IN MOBILE IN 2004] [ and David White."
As for the non-musical part, that too is a matter of taste.
"I dare you to find a bad meal there," Heller said. Part of his eagerness to get back to Satori Coffee, where he plays this evening, obviously has something to do with Satori's location right next to The Brick Pit.
"We've got the deal wired," Heller said. Satori knows he "doesn't have a contract rider, except for the ribs."
Musically, Heller is a champion of the organ jazz trio format, a love going back to his formative years in Philadelphia. The organist handles the bass with one hand; with the other, he or she provides a foundation of chords or can just as easily take the lead while Heller drops back and comps.
Yet with all that going on, it remains a supremely compact format, able to switch from lounge-y grooving to hard-driving solos in the blink of an eye. When it comes to harmonizing, Heller explained, he's only got one other player to contend with.
He travels alone, partly because it's economical, partly as a way of paying tribute to the precedent set by Pete Seeger. The reward -- and the risk -- comes from working with different musicians in the various regions he visits.
In Mobile, he said, he's on secure ground.
"There's one of these in every town," he said of drummer White.
Heller described White as a fully developed and flexible player who could back an Elvis impersonator one night, play with a country band the next night, then play advanced jazz the third evening, and have it all so well in hand that "(y)ou'd be hard pressed to figure out which of those gigs is really his gig."
As for keyboardist Spies, generally regarded as one of the most talented instrumentalists in the area, he was no less effusive.
"Chris is just ... where the hell do these guys come from?" he said. "There's a lottery of dumb luck. Some women are born beautiful, some musicians are born with that kind of talent."
"There aren't 40 organ players in the country playing on that level," Heller said. "Do you know what an honor it is to call Chris Spies up and ask when he's available, and have him start moving things around on his calendar?"
Heller said the three met courtesy of Kitty Hinkle and Stephen McClurg, when Hinkle first booked Heller to play at Satori. Since then they've had several occasions to hone their chops together for shows in the Mobile area and in Huntsville (where they'll be on Saturday).
In Heller's last show at Satori, the music was an appealing mix of highbrow jazz and jazzed-up pop, ranging from Thelonious Monk's "Little Rootie Tootie" to a rendition of "Ode to Billie Joe," better known as a languid country tune sung by Bobbie Gentry.
And that's just a hint of how broad Heller's tastes are. In conversation he's apt to praise Stevie Wonder and Bill Monroe in one sentence, and draw a line from Gustav Mahler to Frank Zappa in the next. And routinely to scatter bomblets such as, "Jazz filled a void in my life when punk rock started to suck."
Spies, fresh back in Mobile this week from a stint performing in Key West, said he'd arrived to find "a package of Skip material waiting on my doorstep."
"Looking at this list, this time we're going from David Bowie to Frank Sinatra," Spies said of the projected set list.
Returning Heller's compliments, Spies described the guitarist as practically "a national treasure" for his dedication to the organ trio format.
"It's a weird thing," Spies said of the arrangement's challenges. "I kind of have to split my brain in half."
But working with Heller has pushed him to develop the proficiency of his left-hand bass work, he said. Spies said there's a possibility he will put those lessons to work this fall in a new trio featuring drummer Mike Clark, formerly of the Kentucky Headhunters, and saxophonist Rebecca Barry, a south Alabama native now working in New Orleans.
In the shorter term, Spies said, he's committed to wrapping up a CD of solo material and releasing it in coming months.
The prolific Heller, for his part, will have at least three new discs available for this Mobile visit: "Bear Flag," a set of original material; "Out of Time," a live recording from a visit to Philadelphia; and "The Cavender Transcriptions," a set recorded in Huntsville earlier this year.
Tonight's show is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. and carry an $8 cover charge, according to www.satoricoffee.com. Satori is at 5460 Old Shell Road; call 344-4575.