Jimmy Herring & The Invisible Whip


Carrying on the legacy of Col. Bruce Hampton’s Commitment to Failure

Gothic Theatre | September 7

Fox Theatre | September 8 & 9

Aggie Theatre | September 10

jimmy herring feature marquee magazine

By Sarah Baranauskas

We are all driven by an invisible whip.

Some run, some have fun, some are hip,

some tip, some dip, but we all must answer to

the invisible whip.

— Rhassand Roland Kirk

“There are those magic nights when you’re not even trying and it’s just pouring through you, but those nights don’t always happen,” Jimmy Herring said, pondering the challenge of playing live improvisational music. For Herring, who spoke to The Marquee on the phone from his home outside Atlanta, Ga., the key for musicians is getting out of your own way.

“If you’re lucky enough as an improviser to get your conscious self out of the picture, then some real music can come through,” Herring mused. “You’re just the catalyst. That’s the best. But some nights it’s hard. You’re conscious of yourself and your surroundings. But, on a good night when you’re not self-aware, that’s when the real music happens.”

Herring has always found Colorado to be particularly conducive to helping musicians find that unselfconscious headspace. While Widespread Panic takes a step back from extensive touring, Herring, whose storied musical resume likely needs no introduction to Marquee readers, is thus lining up the elements for some fiery musical alchemy as he brings his latest project, Invisible Whip, to the Front Range in early September.

“The audience in Colorado is such a gift because they’re with you through and through,” Herring reflected. “It’s always been that way. When I was touring with Aquarium Rescue Unit, Boulder was one of our best towns. You know you can go out on a limb and, even if you fall, the audience is right there with you and will catch you. They don’t leave. Sometimes, they will applaud you when you fail, especially if they know you know you failed. Like if something happens during an improvisation and it doesn’t go like you had hoped, and they can see it on your face, they will still cheer because they know you were trying to do something different. For an improviser, that’s a gift from God because, my god, if you’re not failing, you’re clearly not trying to do something you haven’t done before.”

In Invisible Whip, Herring will be joined by fellow heavy hitters in the Atlanta music scene — drummer (and ARU veteran) Jeff Sipe, keyboardist Matt Slocum (B3 organ, clavinet), bassist Kevin Scott and multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby. The name was inspired by Colonel Bruce Hampton, or, more accurately, by a quote from jazz pioneer Rhassand Roland Kirk, one of Hampton’s own heroes. Hampton used to cite Kirk’s “invisible whip,” the motivating force that drives each individual to creatively evolve, as part of his own musical philosophy.

The influence of Hampton can similarly be seen as a driver in Invisible Whip’s musical ethos. “Hopefully it’s carrying over,” Herring said, laying down the group’s motivation. “We hope all the musicians are pure at heart with the intention to just play beautiful music. That they are out there for all the right reasons because they have to be open to the music experience and willing to follow it where it takes them. They can’t be afraid to fail.”

This idea of fearlessly failing would come up frequently in the conversation with Herring. It may seem odd to hear someone regarded as a musical master use words like “fail” to describe their own process, but it’s an important and often underappreciated, part of the creative journey. It was a lesson learned from Hampton, when a then 26-year-old Herring, a music school graduate still searching for his unique musical voice, joined Aquarium Rescue Unit. Hampton took all of young Herring’s meticulously practiced technique and academic mindset — and threw it out the window.

“He’d say, ‘No, you need to drop all this academic stuff,’” Herring recalled. “Most musical gigs, when you’re playing with a band leader, if you don’t play the ‘correct’ way, whatever that means, you might get fired. But, in Bruce’s world, he wanted to hear you searching. If he thought you were just going through the motions and playing what you already practiced, or he thought you were copying your heroes to the point where you didn’t sound like yourself, he would give you a hard time. He would tell you, ‘I heard that last night,’ or, ‘I can hear what you’re listening to,’ or, ‘You’re copying other guitar players, why don’t you listen to horn players?’”

“He would give you an outlet where you didn’t have to be afraid to fail,” Herring continued. “In his philosophy, if you never fail, then you’re not trying new things. You have to accept failure as a part of growth. By giving us that outlet, it didn’t take long for us to become fearless about failure because we knew we weren’t going to lose the gig. In fact, you might lose the gig if you weren’t failing because he would know you weren’t trying anything new. I look at that experience as the most significant musical experience of my lifetime and my biggest growth spurt.”

As Herring described, Hampton had little patience for musicians who were in it for fame, money or women. He didn’t want to work with someone who just saw their instrument as a means to an end. That was why the other musicians in ARU (which included Sipe, as well as bassist Oteil Burbridge) were such a perfect team to swim in the radical currents of Hampton’s muse — they just wanted to play music for music’s sake.

It was a bug that Herring caught early in his life. Growing up idolizing his two long-haired, motorcycle-riding older brothers, some of his earliest musical memories were formed around their record collection, as Herring soaked in the sounds of Allman Brothers Band’s Live at the Fillmore East, Jimi Hendrix’s  Electric Ladyland, and Santana’s Abraxas. “When you’re ten years old and you hear Fillmore East, that leaves an impression,” Herring recounted.“I was just a kid, but I was absolutely enamored.”

One of his brother’s best friends, who Herring simply referred to as “Bob,” would later stay with Herring’s family for almost a year. Bob brought a Fender, along with the reverb of his Ampeg amplifier, to the house. “To hear him plug that thing in, it sounded just like the records,” Herring reminisced, his excitement still palpable after all this time. “I could literally reach out and touch it. It was in the room right across the hall from me. Bob showed me my first chords. ‘Hey Joe,’ ‘House of the Rising Sun.’ So I begged my parents for a guitar and they got me a Fender Bronco.” It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Fender guitars, and the first of many times Herring would heed his own invisible whip.

Gothic Theatre | September 7

Fox Theatre | September 8 & 9

Aggie Theatre | September 10

Go If You Dig:

  • Widespread Panic
  • Aquarium Rescue Unit
  • John McLaughlin
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