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The most innovative guitarist alive was discovered in 1983 as he played for change on the street corners of Manhattan. Music giants like Frank Zappa and jazzmen Art Blakey and Cecil Taylor were blown away by a 23-year-old Stanley Jordan who radically redefined the potentials of guitar music. Eleven years later, Jordan is found further from the pantheon of ax gods than he needs to be.
Sadly, this immense talent has diluted himself by attempting to please a diverse audience generally asking much less of Jordan than he is capable of playing, an audience whose simpler musical tastes Jordan can understand and relate to.
But the full-strength dose of Stanley Jordan will induce nosebleeds in guitar fans content with screeching single-string solos or lightning-fast finger picking. Jordan literally plays the guitar like a piano, both hands tapping out the notes on the neck of specially designed guitars as though the strings were piano keys. The sheer amount of music in a Jordan solo is astounding, and especially impressive mixed with his topnotch jazz sensibilities.
Eddie Van Halen can neck-tap a solo for a matter of seconds; Jordan plays all his tunes in this fashion from beginning to end, sometimes hammering the notes out on two guitar necks at the same time. Jazz fret wizard Joe Pass thought Jordan was two guitarists when first hearing an early recording of Jordan playing bass, rhythm and lead all at the same time.
"I finally admitted a few years ago that the technique was more complicated than I acknowledged before," laughs Jordan in a phone call from a Pittsburgh club he would play that night.
Jordan had worked on the neck-tapping innovation for six years prior to showcasing his talents on the streets of Manhattan.
"It came out of some experimenting. I've always loved being able to self-accompany, like on keyboards," says Jordan, recalling his days of studying classical piano. "It wasn't an accident. I went through five or six stages where I tried other techniques before I arrived at the approach I use now."
Word of mouth landed Jordan a record deal. His first major release, 1985's Magic Touch, tackled a curious mix of music: Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk compositions were covered, as were meaty interpretations of the Beatles and Hendrix--the latter one of Jordan's admitted influences. Unfortunately, the album cut chosen for adult radio stations was the lame Michael Jackson hit "The Lady in My Life," complete with gushy arrangement and a goofy, ballerina-laden video for VH-1. It was hard to appreciate Jordan's amazing skill in the context of the trite song, just as it would have been a near-impossible feat to fully grasp Hendrix had he covered an orchestra-laden Carpenters ditty.
The same odd diversity was present on the next year's Standards, on which Jordan jumped from "My Favorite Things" … la John Coltrane to Bread's silly "Guitar Man." 1991's live disc Stolen Moments included a killer version of another Coltrane standard, "Impressions," while opening with a stale rendition of "Stairway to Heaven."
"Stairway to Heaven' is the most requested song at our live shows," states Jordan. "There is always someone hollering out for the tune. Others say, 'Come on, he's not going to play that.' And then I play it," he admits proudly.
The inclusion of the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly Wow" and the disco band Heatwave's simplistic "Always and Forever" on Bolero, Jordan's newest, gives the critics further reason to grimace. And it's not that his record company force-feeds him material beneath his capabilities.
"I think the conservative jazz element found out I like rock and dance music and a lot of things they consider no-nos. So they decided I sold out," he says. "Their snobbery says that if you're capable of playing jazz, you couldn't possibly enjoy playing something else. So if you do play rock, it can't possibly be because you like the music, it must be for the money. There's a whole chain of assumptions that they put into it.
"I played rock before I played jazz. I guess I moved on to other things because rock was too simple for me. I wanted to embrace forms that had more richness in their structural details. But that doesn't mean I ever stopped liking rock or dance music."
Or recording it, in spite of its lack of challenge for him. But the complainers are few, with audiences less interested in hearing his eye-popping improvisations of "Autumn Leaves" and "What's Goin' On" than his note-for-note mimicking of a tired Zeppelin song.
No surprise, then, that a Stanley Jordan concert would attract a multitude of young, wanna-be rockers--Jordan regularly graces the pages of all the techno-guitar rags--as well as the jazz crowd. And the guitarist himself attests to yet a wider audience at his shows.
"I see the mellow, 'quiet storm' crowd, too, and people who have heard some of my funky stuff on urban radio. And some people who are actually more into classical music. Outside of classical music, it can be hard to find music with this kind of sensitivity."
Jordan caters to this latter faction of fans by naming his newest release Bolero, after the Ravel composition that opens the disc. "Mine is certainly not the definitive version of 'Bolero,'" says Jordan, "it's just one way of revisiting the song. Originally, the bolero was a kind of dance. So basically what we did was modernize it to the beats people are dancing to today."
"Bolero," clocking in at more than 22 minutes, is an intricate interweaving of hip-hop rhythms, Indian flutes, chanting, near-metal-guitar licks, and synth washes that Jordan spent two years compiling. It's an infectious display of high-tech music, but the personality of Jordan's guitar work is barely evident.
"Most of the work on the record was on 'Bolero,' and then we quickly did everything else," laughs Jordan. "Everything else was easy."
Here fusion jazz fans will find Jordan's version of Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon," and the soul/R&B bunch will gravitate toward the Stylistics and Heatwave covers. Jazzers will single out "Plato's Blues." But only one of the cuts shows the intensity of an inspired Jordan: A solo reprise of Heatwave's "Always and Forever" ends the album, the monster guitarist amazingly stripping the piece of its Seventies disco fluffiness with the same complex, visceral chops that snatched him from playing for tips on the streets of New York.
But the tireless Jordan would rather look ahead, already preparing to connect with another segment of his unlimited-but-limiting audience.
"I haven't really decided what I'm going to do for my next project," says Jordan, "but I was thinking of doing a New Age record.