Stanley Jordan’s One-Man Band

All That Jazz: May 2011

Columns | Philip Ellison | May 2011

In the early 1950s, the record business was in its doldrums. The "greatest generation" was back from overseas and entering middle age, most starting families with little left from their paychecks for "stacks o’ wax". Big bands were dead, and the industry was faced with an early "format war" as the 3-minute 78 RPM was fading and the age of the 10- then 12-inch LP was dawning, challenging the concept (and the economics) of the "hit record" – while marooning major stars, record producers, and Artists and Repertoire (A&R) talent scouts equally.

This was a time when even Frank "The Voice" Sinatra was without a record deal, looking to Hollywood (some say nudged by the Mob) to resuscitate his career... any career. At least temporary relief could be found in the cruel embrace of novelty, attracting an audience with a train wreck if need be. Sinatra, and many others, bit the bullet and recorded what we then called "novelty tunes" or later "one-hit wonders," providing a kind of audio titillation. Some did it with sound effects, others cornball lyrics, or an absurd, sometimes lurid, tale told in song, all designed to amuse if not satisfy after more than a few plays.

Sinatra was fortunate, though he fell for the gag, and made some records (take "Mama Will Bark"... please!) he later would have preferred to forget, he escaped the clutches of Columbia Records and Mitch (the Svengali of kitsch) Miller, head of Columbia A&R, for Capitol.

Sinatra, with a puckish wit and sense of payback, would have his revenge. He recorded "There’s a Flaw in My Flue" written by the great tunesmiths Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, men known to moonlight supplying tunes for Bing Crosby’s  "Flop Parade" radio feature, during his career-making collaboration with Nelson Riddle. Included as a demo with tracks for a new album, the Capitol brass took the bait and loved it, complete with absurd imagery, delivered tongue firmly in cheek. It was Sinatra’s good fortune that his popularity had rebounded by this juncture to grant him an important measure of damage-limiting artistic control as part of his Capitol deal. With that, the cut would only see the light of day nearly 4 decades later as a CD bonus track make-weight.

This brings us to the strange case of jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan who performed recently at Vienna’s Porgy & Bess (1., Riemergasse 11), beset by a flu he must have picked up during his seven day trawl through Spain the week before. A sensation when he emerged in the mid-1980s, Jordan is that rare artist with amazing technical prowess and a novel approach to his instrument, who is also blessed with excellent market timing. Able to connect with popular tastes at a time when "genre-bending" jazz-fusion was in vogue, a new jazz star was born.

With a debut recording for his own label under his belt, Jordan was signed by Bruce Lundvall for his then newly-revived Blue Note label. Jordan’s 1985 Magic Touch was the company’s first new release (as opposed to its program of CD reissues of out-of-print LPs) and an enormous critical and commercial success. It remained at the top of the jazz charts for 51 weeks, a success which resulted in his being nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy that year.

Jordan impressed jazz audiences then, and still does, with his unconventional and quite visual two-hand tapping electric guitar technique. While tapping – a technique of playing melody and chords simultaneously – isn’t entirely his own invention, the sight of him playing two independent parts, and sounding like two instruments at once, is, well, a novelty.  In truth, he is a joy to watch. Though he appears reserved, focused, he is indeed a showman. Rather than fingering the fretboard of his guitar with one hand and strumming with the other, both hands are active on the neck of the guitar, each doing the work of two, chords and melody, dazzling in their dexterity.

Jordan began his study of music at the piano, and when he picked up the guitar at the age of 11, he took the piano with him. Playing lines and chords simultaneously on guitar, he up-ends traditional technique, Jordan is the pianist of guitar players, while all others, still plucking, may as well be playing the harpsichord.

Interestingly, as a mark of his growth as an artist, he shared with the Vienna audience something of a panorama. Twice during the show, he took his guitar over to the baby Grand, playing a line with his left on the piano, another line with his right on the guitar. Maybe just evidence of a wonderful work ethic, but one had to admire his playing through a bad cold, as he blew his nose with one hand and continued playing uninterrupted with the other, as the proof that the show not only must, but can go on. Yet with all the virtuosity, he veered dangerously toward the schizophrenic, particularly when he twisted the dials on his amp to produce a rather dated guitar "wah-wah" fit for an ‘80s rock arena show... but this can be forgiven in the name of eclecticism.

Stanley Jordan is a one-man band. His amplified guitar has the nylon-string sound of a Les Paul, disturbingly complete with Paul’s studio overdubs... except that it was live! That is, what others achieved through technology, Jordan achieves on stage. Balancing this, was his use of a slide in the course of a blues tune that brought us back to a genuine and very rootsy guitar sound.

At first, all of this smacks of (here’s that word again) novelty, but it would be a disservice to the artist to stop there. What makes him stand out, almost in spite of his showmanship, is his ability to improvise, to write, and arrange. His set list included Claude Debussy’s "Reverie" for solo piano, recast for guitar, a wonderful "My One and Only Love" and a set-ending and wordless "Stairway to Heaven", a tune at once refreshed and refreshing.

By the end of the night, one was aware that here stood a genuine artist, an auto-didact and a man so brainy it was no wonder he has been in and out of the industry and public favor so many times, spending much of the last two decades searching, probing "new age" thinking and devoting his attention to the study of music therapy. Now a (young) grandfather, those fortunate enough to have heard him were not concerned that the novelty may have worn off and hope he will drop by again.

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