Guitarist Jon Herington is a classic case of a “musician’s musician” — a sideman and session player who has worked with everyone from Steely Dan to Lucy Kaplansky to Michael Brecker.
Since the late ’80s, Herington’s lead guitar playing has appeared on many albums across the rock and jazz spectrum. He’s probably best known as the lead guitarist for Steely Dan, a position he’s held since 2000. Most recently, he has joined fellow Steely Dan backing players in the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, a super group featuring Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald plus Boz Scaggs.
All this work leaves little time for Herington to focus on his own music. For over 20 years now, he has led a trio featuring bassist Dennis Espantman and drummer Frank Pagano in the New York City area, but until recently the band played shows only when Herington’s busy schedule allowed. He released a solo album of his own material, “Like So,” in 2000, but otherwise the group has laid low for the majority of the decade as he focused on Steely Dan.
“For me, it’s sort of like the final frontier, musically,” Herington said from Cleveland, a stop on the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue tour. “I did a lot of session work, a lot of variety of styles when I was learning to play guitar over the years. The sideman work has been rewarding, and really a lot of fun as well, with some of the world’s greatest bands to play with. To have had the opportunity to do that is fantastic, but the one unrealized dream for me is to have my own band working more.”
The Jon Herington Band
Where: The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
How Much: $18
More Info: 465-5233 ext. 4, www.wamcarts.org
Kicking it up
Since 2008, Herington has been moving ever closer to that dream, releasing three studio albums with his trio in quick succession. His most recent record, the raw, blues-rock document “Time on My Hands,” was released earlier this year.
With an assistant now handling the band’s bookings, Herington has also kicked things up a notch when it comes to touring. After the Dukes of September finish up on the road this month, The Jon Herington Band will head out on a national tour through October, which lands at The Linda on Saturday night.
“The dream isn’t so much about making money, although that is nice to do — it would afford me the opportunity to do it more than the other things I do,” Herington said. “Mostly, I wanted to know what it felt like to do that work with my band, enough to get as confident doing that as I have been on some of these sideman gigs that tour a lot. There’s something so great that you get from repeated opportunities to play the same music with the same people night after night, with high stakes — a crowd, people listening and paying money for tickets.”
The approach is, needless to say, much different from his work with Steely Dan, where he’s required to re-create parts by such legendary guitarists as Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Larry Carlton. Thanks to his work with that band, he has found himself developing his own style within the group that he wanted to showcase on his own records, especially “Time on My Hands.”
“Part of the idea of reviving the band myself was to try to take some of that — what I felt like was a focus as far as my guitar playing goes, and present it with music of my choice,” Herington said. “In my own band, I have the great advantage to play whatever songs I want, and I don’t have to play what my band leaders tell me to play — although that’s not a problem with Steely Dan, and the Dukes of September stuff is fantastic stuff too.”
To that end, he and his trio focused on the guitar for the songs on “Time on My Hands” — in fact, many of the songs were built around chord progressions that Herington wanted to solo over, a major change from some of the more overt singer-songwriter material found on his other records.
With that feel in mind, the band tracked the songs live to get a rawer feel, with Herington then adding guitar and vocal overdubs at his home studio in between tours with other bands. Many longtime musician friends guested on the record playing keyboards, including Fagen, Jim Beard and Rob Morsberger.
“It’s not a typical way I’ll write — I often write a title first, and let the title suggest the music, let the lyrics and music evolve simultaneously,” Herington said. “A lot of these tunes, I had the music first, or a riff, a bunch of chord changes that I wanted to play on, and I found a way to flesh them out into songs as well, which was a big challenge.”
The biggest challenge for him was maintaining a high level of songwriting amid the guitar vehicles. The songs themselves are less introspective than Herington’s previous album “shine (shine shine),” released in 2010, instead focusing on humorous lyrics — including a song about a character whose romantic life centers on the Internet.
“When you go about it intending — when you set your mind to just do a record about the guitar, you can — people often fail to address the quality of the song itself. A lot of records seem like excuses for the guitar player to play, not songs that anyone would care to listen to. . . . We tried to make sure it still felt like the songs stood on their own without guitar solos.”