If you’re a Rippingtons fan, then you already know the name Bill Heller, long time keyboardist for the pioneering smooth jazz group. Over the years, you’ve heard him play and enjoyed his contributions to the group. If you’re in the NYC metro area, you may even have caught him sitting in with other musicians, or playing his own gigs on the local NYC music scene. We like him, but do we really know him musically? Last year, Bill released his first solo project, Find the Way, giving us a chance to become better acquainted. Smoothviews took the opportunity to chat with Bill about his project.
Smoothviews (SV): I’ve got to say, I really like this album a lot. It’s one of my favorites for the year.
Bill Heller (BH): Oh! Thank you so much.
SV: It’s called Find the Way, and it was released a few months ago, and it’s just fantastic. I hope it’s doing well for you.
BH: It’s doing okay. Once again, for me, it’s a thing of, I’m so used to working for everybody else, and so to work for myself is odd. Self promotion, and the rest of it, you know, I have to make time to do that. It’s worthwhile, and it’s a good cause, but I have to pay the bills too.
SV: Of course. So, this is your first CD?
BH: Yeah, pretty much.
SV: Most people know you as a long time member of The Rippingtons. You are the keyboardist. You are giving people a chance to know you better musically. What is it that you want to say with this CD? I’m sure that with this release you’ve put together all of these incredible songs, that’s there’s something that you want to convey.
BH: I think it kind of speaks to what’s going on in my head musically. I’ve written a lot of stuff over the years and with this collection of songs, I think best speaks to what resonates in me.
SV: So, I guess the message you’re sending out is this is you. This is who you are.
SV: Okay. Great! I want to talk about some of the songs. Everybody should know that you wrote and produced everything yourself. It’s so diverse. Jazz in all of its forms are represented on this CD. And there are a few surprises, especially the last song; the French influenced song, “Trottier du Musette.” That’s very quirky.
BH: It’s also a nod to my first instrument. My first instrument was an accordion.
SV: Oh really? Okay.
BH: Yes. I said I wanted to play some accordion on this CD.
SV: It’s kind of cute and refreshing to hear. It’s kind of a nice surprise to close out the CD.
BH: Also, I was talking to some friends this weekend and they said, “I hear your humor in there,” so I think that’s part of my humor.
SV: That was very catchy and quirky to just kind of throw that in there like that. I wasn’t expecting that at all, but it works for the album. You’re covering so many bases with this music. Nothing is replicating itself in the song selection. Every song is its own individual style. That’s one of the things I really like about this CD.
BH: I guess the thing that ties it together is me as the writer, and how it all fits together. There was a concern with the diversity that maybe it was too diverse and it wouldn’t make a cohesive statement, but I think it does.
SV: I think it does too. I’ve heard other CDs where it sounds like the artist just threw the songs together and labeled it an album, or they have a song that’s so obviously out of place from the rest of the album. There was no cohesion, or the cohesion fell apart. It was not homogenous. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it didn’t have good flow.
BH: That was a concern here, but somehow, it all works.
SV: Yes it does. You’ve got an all star cast working with you on this project. I just want to run off a few names: Jeff Kashiwa, Eric Marienthal, Joel Rosenblatt, Dave Karasony, and Rico Belled. I know you’ve worked with all of these artists at some point over the years. When you wrote these songs, did you have particular players in mind to play on each one, or did you trust in their talents and abilities to get the job done?
BH: I didn’t write for those specific people, but I did pick certain people to play on certain tunes because I thought they were a better match for the songs.
SV: When I listen to a CD, as a listener, it’s very important to have the right song to open the CD. If the right opening track is not in place, it makes me less interested in listening to the rest of the CD. If it falls flat, it’s not going to encourage me to listen to it.
SV: But I think you nailed it with your opening track, “Guaraldi.”
BH: Yes, thank you.
SV: That was perfect. I’m assuming since you named it after [Vince] Guaraldi, he may have been one of your influences?
BH: I don’t think there’s a modern jazz pianist who can’t say they were not influenced by Vince Guaraldi growing up and hearing the Peanuts theme, and whatever. When I wrote that song, there was something about it harmonically that made me think of Vince Guaraldi, so that’s why I titled it. I kind of sneak in a couple of notes of the Peanuts theme in my piano solo.
SV: Oh yeah? I didn’t hear that. I’ll have to go back and listen to the solo again. Wonder how I missed that? I’m a big Peanuts fan. Anyway, I just watched on YouTube, a live version of “Down and Loaded.”
BH: There are a couple of them out there now. Was that the one I did one a gig with Paula Atherton?
SV: Yes. That’s the one. It was great. It sounded even better live. Where was that?
BH: There’s a place up in Connecticut called Home. It’s a restaurant. It was part of a series that Ed Tankus does up there. He has an internet radio station – Blue Plate Radio. I was on Paula’s gig up there.
SV: A couple of years ago, I interviewed you for Smoothviews. Your CD was still a work in progress. It was under construction. During our interview, you said that you wanted to have three different rhythm sections. As it turned out, that’s what you got. Each of the pairs, their approach is different. How do you match the players to the tunes?
BH: Like I said, I’ve played with all of them in different situations. Those pairings are bass and drums. Like Dave Karasony and Rico Belled, Joel Rosenblatt, you know him from Spyro Gyra or now, Blood, Sweat and Tears. And Dave Anderson, who’s also fantastic. He’s done so many gigs. He’s a bass player. He was playing with Blood, Sweat and Tears. Now he’s been playing with Bill Evans. He’s done everything from Art Garfunkel to a lot of the smooth guys around. I happen to work with Joel and Dave in a lot of situations locally. I feel very comfortable with them as well. And the other pairing is Frank Bellucci and Jim Cammack. We’ve been doing a lot of work around Long Island, local stuff. Frank is not as well known as Jim. Jim has been the bass player with Ahmad Jamal for almost 30 years. He’s been plenty of places. But Frank is also a very fantastic drummer, very accomplished.
SV: How is the NY music scene these days?
BH: Mixed and varied, just like everyplace else. It’s so strange to me. On the local scene, the club scene, some things haven’t changed. But some have actually gotten worse. I think music at that level has been affected greatly by technology. Technology can be a boom or a bang, but in this circumstance, the production of pop music turns from actual musicians to computers. So many people can make a record in their basement all by themselves without musicians. When I was young, we’d go out and hear music. There were musicians playing music. Nowadays, it’s gone to that extreme of computer generated music, or music that you create with computers that is basically dance music or DJ music. Young people are not going to see bands as much as DJ’s. I see things turning around in that respect though.
SV: I know growing up in NY, we also used to go to the theater and you had the pit, with the orchestra in it. They don’t even have the orchestras much anymore. It’s all canned, pre-recorded.
BH: No, they still have that, at least in NY.
SV: Okay. It must be out here when they take the shows on the road. Sometimes they don’t have live musicians. It’s not the same. I’m so used to looking over into the pit and seeing the orchestra there. LOL! I want to talk about the technology a little. People aren’t buying whole albums anymore. They’re buying tracks.
BH: Yes. I notice on some of the reports that I get through CD Baby or whatever, that some people download an individual tune, some people do iTunes. Some people bought the CD at a concert then they can download through iTunes. There have been a lot of changes. It’s funny about the single thing you just mentioned. I’m not trying to date you or figure out how old you are. For me, when I was growing up, we bought singles, we bought 45’s. The focus seems to be coming back in a way on that. People are less concerned with creating a record, even, across generations, in a way. You can release smaller sets of music, rather than commit to a whole record, which could be financially easier for people to do if you’re working on your own.
SV: That’s true, but I think I’m old school though. I like albums. I like liner notes. You may not like every song on the album, but you’re going to like some, or even most of them.
BH: Like we were talking before, how they fit together as a group of songs. It’s an album. If it were a photo album, it would be pictures that had some theme that they were tied to whether it was a birthday or a wedding album, so they all are somehow tied together. I like the concept of an album.
SV: Okay, I digressed a little bit. Getting back to your album, I want to ask you about “Latinesque.” It sounds very authentic. It’s got those fabulous horns and that great Latin rhythm.
BH: I hired Luis Bonilla, a fantastic trombone player from the L.A. area. He’s in NY now. He’s done everything from jazz to the heavy Latin gigs. He helped me out with that because the trombone on that is great. And Carl Fischer is on the trumpet. He’s on the road now with Billy Joel.
SV: Yes, you’ve got some good horns on there, fantastic. “5 for 1” is also one of my favorites on this album. It’s a great song. As I said before, this album has been one of my favorites, and I like that it’s all original, and the diversity. It’s not recreating music that’s already out there.
BH: That’s what I was going for. I was trying to do the stuff that resonates with me musically. It wasn’t trying to be anything else. It was just coming solely from my creativity; not trying to fit into any kind of R&B thing, or straight ahead thing, although there are enough straight ahead tunes there, but I feel that it just represents my voice.
SV: Very good. I know this is a recent release, but have you given any thought to maybe doing more in the future?
BH: Oh yes. As soon as this one gets up on its feet, I have plans for the next one.
SV: That’s great. I want to talk about the Rippingtons a little. You’ve been with them for quite some time now.
BH: My first Rippingtons record with Russ was Topaz (1999). Before that, it was the record he did with Craig Chaquico [From the Redwoods to the Rockies – 1998] but Topaz was my first, almost 16 years ago.
SV: The Rippingtons themselves have been around for a long time now. From Moonlighting back in 1987, to the latest release, Fountain of Youth, and everything in between, how do they manage to keep things fresh and new?
BH: Russ is always trying to do something a little different with each record. Talk about what we just said about an album -he tries to get a theme for every record, whether it was golf [Let It Ripp], or Topaz was great. It had that Southwest Native American thread that ran through that.
SV: Life in the Tropics…
BH: Life in the Tropics has a kind of Caribbean influence. And the new one, Fountain of Youth, has an explorer kind of thing. He has something different on every one. Cote d’Azur, which was French influenced. But he tries to make each album with a different theme.
SV: And the Jazz Cat has been a constant on all of the album covers.
BH: He stuck with that from the first record. Bill Mayer is the artist’s name. Bill’s been an artist for many years. He did a poster for the Atlanta Jazz Festival many years ago. I saw it at Joel Rosenblatt’s house. It was the Jazz Cat before the Rippingtons used the Jazz Cat. Russ picked up on it, I think. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. That’s where he maybe saw it first and had Bill draw that on the first record, and kept up with that. He put the Jazz Cat on every album.
SV: Everyone looks to see what the Jazz Cat is up to on each album. It’s a pretty cool thing though.
BH: Russ gives him a concept of what the record is going to be and he draws some quick sketches. For Wildcard, it was interesting to see all the different things that could have been on the album cover. Then Russ will say, “That one, go with that one.”
SV: A little insight into the creative process. Thank you for that. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me this evening. And best of luck with Find the Way. It’s a really great album, and I think people will like it as much as I do once they hear it.
BH: Thank you.