By Robert Ham
Special to The Oregonian
PORTLAND, Oregon — Until 1999, Jon Herington had been living the life of most well regarded but little known guitar players. The New Jersey native was grabbing gigs in studios and in clubs where he could get them, playing in the backing band for Broadway musicals, and teaching young students.
All that changed, however, when a friend brought a CD of Herington’s original music into the studio where Steely Dan was recording its first new album in 20 years.
“They were looking for someone to do overdubs on Two Against Nature,’ ” Herington remembers. “I went in to play on a single track. A month later they called me back to do four more songs.”
It didn’t end there. Steely Dan’s co-leaders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were so impressed with Herington’s work that they invited him to play on the band’s 2000 tour, which started in Japan and took them all around the world. Nothing in Herington’s life has been the same since.
“I was never really seen as a road guy before, but this definitely widened the scope of people that heard me,”he says, speaking by phone from his apartment in Brooklyn. “The next thing I know I’m on tour with Boz Scaggs, Bette Midler, Phoebe Snow … I’ve pretty much been touring ever since.”
The one group that has been his mainstay for the past 15 years has been Steely Dan. Herington appeared on the group’s last studio effort, 2003’s Everything Must Go, as well as Fagen’s two solo albums, Morph The Cat and Sunken Condos. And he’s been a part of every tour they’ve done since, including the one set to begin on July 2 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
It’s a testament to Herington’s abilities as a player that he was able to blend into the sound and spirit of Steely Dan’s music with such ease. The band has long been known for its musical complexity, melding of jazz phrasings and rhythms into the well-worn structure of a pop song. It certainly helped that Herington spent years studying jazz and classical composition at both Rutgers University and under the tutelage of Dennis Sandole, a virtuoso player who mentored John Coltrane in the ’40s and ’50s.
Herington’s most important asset, though, is his ability to find that perfect middle ground where his needs as a player, his bandmates’ expectations for a great live performance, and the fans’ desire to hear their favorite songs all coincide.
“The challenge is to balance what I love and honor about these songs and to make it my own,” Herington says. “You have to decide, as a player, to either meet the fans’ expectations or defy them. I don’t want every performance to be like a cover band trying to remake or replay the records. But it’s not right to ignore it either. So I get close to the spirit of that original guitar part and play around with it.”
His long tenure has had an added effect on Herington, as he now has started finding some of the compositional techniques that Steely Dan uses making their way into his own original work.
“That took a while to show up,” he says, “but I just started realizing that the way they wrote music made room for a soloist without compromising the nature of the song. I certainly didn’t write naturally that way. I grew up loving the Beatles and the Stones and simpler song forms. Now, I’m approaching the writing in a much different way, putting the guitar center stage and allowing for longer solos to really stretch out on.”
You’ll get a chance to hear that in its fullest form once Herington finishes up the recording of his next solo album. But that won’t be for a while yet, as he’ll be on the road until the middle of September.
As impressive as Herington’s instrumental prowess is, so too is the humility that he exudes in the midst of this ongoing musical adventure. A decade and a half into his stint with Steely Dan, he manages to sound like he is still expecting to be shown the door at some point.
“There might be 100 guitar players on that can do this job well,” he says. “I just happened to be one of them. I had the right range of skills and experience. It’s a great opportunity. I had no clue it would last for 15 years, but I’m still thrilled for the work.”