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Jon Herington Getting the Word Out About “Quiet”



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Guitarist Jon Herington talks to Jazz Guitar Today’s Bob Bakert about Steely Dan, jazz harmony, and current projects – see video interview.

Jon Herington is “Brilliant”  He just is!  His playing, composing, arranging, and mastery of his instrument are second to none. Jon’s dedication to his art, combined with musical acumen, and incredible guitar proficiency makes him simply astonishing.  We could not have more respect for Jon and to top it all off Jon is, as they used to say in times gone by, a “true gentleman”.

When Jon agreed to be our first cover story years ago, he took a chance with us. We are eternally grateful.

Please enjoy our time spent with Jon Herington!

JGT:  Can you talk a little about why Bill Evans’s description of jazz being a “process and not a musical genre” rings true to you?

Jon:  It’s not just that it rings true for me, but that’s it’s such a useful description. It’s useful because it allows a listener or a player to widen the field of influence and to discover a kind of connectedness when it comes to all types of improvised music-making. It’s an inclusive idea that transcends style and genre and honors what Bill thought of as the most essential element of jazz – spontaneous musical invention. 

Embracing this definition of “jazz,” listeners and players can diversify their listening and move beyond the more narrow categories that we all think of when we think of improvised music, whether it’s ragtime, Dixieland, blues, bebop, cool, fusion, etc. Ultimately the study of “jazz,” if you think of it like Bill did, can be a study of any and all types of music that employ improvising. 

Style was clearly critically important for Bill Evans – his style had strict parameters and an amazingly personal, recognizable character – but he was able to draw from everywhere adhering to his wide-open idea of what jazz was at what he thought of as its essence. 

JGT:  While Steely Dan is not a “jazz gig”, you stated that the knowledge of complex harmony (ed note – an understanding of jazz harmony) is essential for anyone sitting in the Steely Dan guitar “chair”…

Jon:  Though I don’t think of Steely Dan as a jazz band, there’s no question that, especially if we think of Bill Evans’ inclusive definition of jazz, that the band employs jazz elements galore. There is plenty of improvising on any live Steely Dan gig. There are also lots of details in the music that derive from jazz traditions, mostly in the harmonic world – the chord progressions and the chord voicings employed. As a result, many of the solo sections lend themselves to a kind of improvising approach that great jazz players have excelled at. 

Thanks to my having studied jazz very seriously (and exclusively) for about 10 years when I was much younger, the harmonic vocabulary of Steely Dan music, though it’s clearly more adventurous than most pop music of its time, didn’t throw me when I first had to learn all those tunes in a hurry. I’m sure that if I hadn’t had that prior experience I would have struggled, particularly when it came to soloing on some of those chord changes. 

JGT:  Can you give a few specific examples that demonstrate this? 

Jon:  One of my favorite examples is the solo section on Green Earrings. It’s one of the solo sections that seems to me to be crying out for a jazz approach, because the chord changes and chord voicings are common ones in the jazz world. It has an unusual harmonic rhythm, and it took some getting used to before I felt comfortable playing on it, but I look forward to it every time (and I wish it went on for longer!). But it goes through several keys, unlike a lot of pop and rock songs, and before I studied jazz I would have been ill-equipped to play anything like a coherent solo on those changes. 

JGT:  You pointed out that Aja, Gaucho, and Nightfly were great examples of maybe the pinnacle of production and possibly as close to perfection as exists in pop music with reference to harmony, melody lyrics, etc… can you give a few examples or an overall explanation of why you picked out those three albums?

Jon:  Those three records sound like the culmination of the Steely Dan aesthetic to me – they sound like the highest heights they ever scaled.  I think there are many contributing factors. Donald and Walter had had many years of record-making to develop and hone their multifaceted skills as writers, arrangers, and producers. Recording expertise and technology were also developing simultaneously in those years, and Donald and Walter were at the forefront of that, too. They also had the luxury of large enough record budgets and their pick of the finest group of session players in what I think could be called the absolute heyday of session playing. They were at the top of their game in their songwriting, their arranging and their producing, and though they certainly weren’t living trouble-free lives, their confidence in their music-making was at its pinnacle. So, in short, all the stars were aligned for that fortunate period of a few years, and those three records are the clear proof. 

JGT:  You have done a lot of work in solo guitar and created two instructional books and one album called “Quiet”. What about solo guitar captures your imagination when it comes to your unique arrangements?

Jon:  I fell in love with the idea of solo jazz guitar playing when it was first introduced to me by my first guitar teacher, the late, great Harry Leahey. Harry had studied with Johnny Smith and Dennis Sandole, and he blew my mind with his deep knowledge of the guitar and particularly with his ability to arrange an entire piece of music on the guitar with melody, bass line, internal moving parts, and more. I began to create my own arrangements as part of my lesson preparation, and over time I accumulated a handful of arrangements that I thought might be good enough to publish as a book. I wanted to do a legitimate publication where I solicited permission from the publishers and writers of all the songs and paid the appropriate fees for using the songs, but the huge job of hunting down the publishers and negotiating contracts was more than I could find the time and energy for. 

Fast forward about 30 years, to a time when I had a very competent assistant hired to do all of the work a musician needs to do that doesn’t feel like music work, and I finally found myself in a position to publish the first of what is now four books of arrangements for solo guitar. 

Flashback – Jon was our first cover!

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