Jimmy Herring isn’t cut from the same cloth as most guitarists. He’s understated and soft-spoken, yet his playing has spoken volumes with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jazz is Dead, Frogwings, the Dead, Project Z and Widespread Panic. Herring’s recording career spans 20 years, but it’s telling that Lifeboat is the first solo outing by the underrated guitarist, who can play with the flash of any fusion hero—but also knows when not to.
That’s the theme of Lifeboat, even though Herring brings in several past bandmates who’ve equaled his firepower. Hampton’s incendiary ARU band also featured bassist Oteil Burbridge and drummer Jeff Sipe, who propel the opening “Scapegoat Blues.” Keyboardist Matt Slocum and Codetalkers’ guitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers also contribute to the disc’s most fusion-fueled piece, which alternates between 4/4 and 6/8 time.
Herring’s other compositional highlights include the gorgeous ballads “New Moon” and “Lifeboat Serenade” (both with guest slide guitarist Derek Trucks), plus the funky “One Strut,” which features Herring’s rhythm guitar interplay with Rodgers (who plays through a whirling Leslie cabinet). Saxophonist Greg Osby helps throw curveballs through the second half of Lifeboat. His soprano work on the “Jungle Book Overture” brings the 1960s animated film back to life, and his alto work highlights a brilliant cover of Wayne Shorter’s “Lost.”
Keyboardist and flutist Kofi Burbridge, from the post-Hampton ARU era, makes several appearances and contributes two compositions. His swinging, playful “Splash” closes the disc and provides another highlight, just as it did that group’s 1994 release In a Perfect World. Other Lifeboat guests include keyboardists Ike Stubblefield and Scott Kinsey and drummer Tyler Greenwell, all of whom also know why Herring breathes rare air. No matter how many notes this guitarist plays, from one to a flurry, he makes every one count.