An Interview With Guitarist Stanley Jordan

On his forthcoming release, Friends, Jordan is a consummate team player.

By , Columnist

There is no guitarist quite like Stanley Jordan, a star from the moment Blue Note Records launched its second life in 1985 with his own commercial debut, The Magic Touch. In response, a respected reviewer stated that the lanky 26-year-old—fresh from several years spent refining his craft as a Manhattan street busker—had “extended the limits of the guitar,” adding that “few players in the history of music of music have brought an instrument to a more radical crossroad.”

He reached the public for reasons pertaining both to his astonishing chops (his sui generis “touch technique,” a pianistic approach that enabled him to play melody, chords and basslines simultaneously), exemplary musicianship, and consistent devotion to melodic and creative imperatives. But at a certain point in the early ‘90s, Jordan retreated from his career, and although he soon returned to public performance he operated without a label until 2008, when he released State of Nature on the rising-star Detroit-based indie Mack Avenue.

images.jpgWhether playing in public or in the studio, it has been Jordan’s intention to make his own inventions the primary focus of the occasion. But on his forthcoming release, Friends [Mack Avenue]  (said friends include guitar heros Mike Stern, Bucky Pizzarelli, Charlie Hunter, and Rusell Malone; saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Ronnie Laws; and violinist Regina Carter), Jordan is a consummate team player, prodding and igniting the flow on an 11-piece program that runs a 360-degree gamut of stylistic food groups.

At 52, Jordan has something consequential to SAY in each genre, as though he’s thought deeply about each mode of expression over many years. Highlights include a four-to-the-floor, George Benson on steroids cover of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” (without overdubbing, Jordan plays the melody on piano while chording for himself on the guitar), an idiomatic investigation of Bela Bartok, a lively samba for Laws, and various ebullient, spectacularly executed interactions with each member of his guitar cohort.

We caught up with Jordan, an Arizona resident, in New York, a few days before a scheduled flight to Europe for four consecutive one-nighters, including a September 14 engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London. He'll resume in October with a coast-to-coast American tour in support of Friends -- it will conclude with four nights at Manhattan's Iridium club.

This is the most collaborative project that I can remember you taking on.

It definitely is. I went in with the idea of doing a collaboration, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. The other musicians had a lot of input into the choice of material, and I wanted to make sure that they were comfortable. So for me, it was more about them than it was about me. When we actually played the tracks, then I thought, “Oh, that’s right. I have to play guitar, too!” I will say that I tried to play an important role in integrating everything, because I wanted to be flexible for all the different artists and still be the sort of axis of the wheel that makes it hopefully sound unified, like it’s one album instead of just a lot of different recordings.

Why these particular four guitarists?

They’re all so special. Bucky Pizzarelli  is one of the grand masters of the music. I’ve been listening to him since I was so young. Playing with him reminded me a guy named Elroy Jones, who taught me and gave me a real feel for jazz music—Elroy died in 1999, and he was from that generation.

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Russell Malone is one of the best guitar players of my generation. He’s mastered the traditional art of jazz guitar, but also does this innovative, creative avant-garde thing, a mathematical side of his playing that I relate to. So I felt good about asking him to do the more experimental piece, “One For Milton” (for composer Milton Babbitt, who taught Jordan at Princeton at the end of the ‘70s).

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Charlie Hunter has a lot of knowledge and really good technique, though he’s not a flashy, showoff player. I love that he lets the music do the talking, so he doesn’t have to fill all the holes. That’s one reason why he’s so respected in the groove music scene, and I wanted to make sure to do something with him that had a nice groove to it. At the beginning of our song, “Walkin’ The Dog,” Charlie is playing the bass lines and everything else at the same time. He’s one of the only guitar players I know other than me who takes that approach, though he uses a more conventional technique than I do. I’d say it’s more difficult to play all those different parts at the same time, just fretting with your left hand.

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Mike Stern is original, with his own sound. He’s similar to Charlie in that he has amazing chops and knowledge, but he plays in an effortless way. I remember years ago we did “Giant Steps,” jamming together in a hotel somewhere. I was so inspired and so amazed at his playing that from then on, I wanted to record it with him.

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I want to mention the horn players, too. During the ‘80s, when he was playing with Miles Davis, my band would sometimes be on the same bill with Miles, and I recall a show in Germany where Miles gave Kenny Garrett a lot of space. because he appreciated Kenny’s talent. Kenny’s saxophone sounds not like a machine, but like an animal. He can make it cry, he can make it sing, he can make it sigh. It’s like an extension of his voice. His harmonic ear is educated from playing the piano, and he can play all the stuff that he’s hearing on the saxophone because he already knows how all the voices come together. When we played together on “Capital J,” it was like we became one.

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One reason why I tapped Regina Carter is that she combines classical and the jazz. I discovered that after reading an article that talks about her having gone to Italy and played on the Guarnieri violin. My first instrument was classical piano, and I have a degree in Theory and Composition from Princeton. I’ve been wanting to bring this out more and more in my recordings. Regina comes in with that gentle touch which, in my opinion, is far too absent in the jazz world today. On the Bartok piece, you get a chance to really hear the sensitivity of her nuance.

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Finally, Ronnie Laws bridges the gaps of different approaches to jazz music. He’s got the sort of soaring, cascading pentatonic approach that he inherited from John Coltrane, but he’s also a very soulful player, and he’s got the "soul jazz" thing down. I wrote “Samba Delight” with him in mind.

While on tour over the next few months, will you take just the trio, or will you be augmenting?

We’re starting out the tour with my core trio of guitar, bass and drums, who are usually Charnett Moffett on bass and Kenwood Dennard on drums, and we’re asking members from the album to play with me on certain gigs. As of now, we’ve got Kenny Garrett and Bucky Pizzarelli for New York (Iridium, October 21-24), and I’ll try to get as many other players as I can. I think we’ll take a tour up again in 2012, and I’ll try to make the core of it my trio plus a couple of the guitarists.

One senses that you’re feeling energized about re-entering the fray.

Overall, I think the album is an energizer, and that fits how I’m feeling now. I’ve spent my life being more of an introvert. What I mean by that is I’ve always loved people, but have kind of a shy side. Now, that was good because I got a lot of practicing in when I was a kid, but I’ve always needed to be alone to recharge my batteries. For the first time, I think I’m learning to charge my batteries through other people, and this album really reflects that.

Perhaps the audience has caught up to you somewhat. I gather that one reason you stepped back is that you felt you were being put into a box a little bit. Now, perhaps, an artist of your multiplicity of interests doesn’t have to be put into a box.

I’m glad you said that. I do think that times have changed and record companies are thinking more creatively. In the past, it was always based on an artist playing one style of music. People did try to put me in a box, and different people would put me in different boxes. Every album I made, different people were disappointed for different reasons, but they’d always have stuff they liked. I learned during my street music days that’s it’s ok to do all the different kinds of music. There was no market segmentation in play. I’d see some people coming along, and I’d try to figure out what I could play that would resonate with them. I’ve always been really diverse like that, and this album really celebrates that, too. Although all my friends are jazz musicians, they’re all really open-minded players. We approached it musically, and I wound up going in a jillion directions.

What were your early windows into jazz?

In the beginning, I was a classical pianist, and I was composing in a kind of late Romantic, sort of Early Modern style. I loved stuff like Brahms and also Prokofiev. I had a breakthrough once, because I noticed that a lot of the cartoons I used to watch had music by Prokofiev. So there was a connection between the stuff that was sort of mass-market to me, but it had that serious music aspect to it.

Then I started getting interested more and more in R&B and blues and rock, which led me to take up guitar. My main heroes when I began were Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana and B.B. King, but after a year or two, at 12-13, I started moving more into jazz, which I had listened to but never tried to play because I didn’t understand it. What I loved about it is that it pulled together the best of the things I had liked before. It has that raw power energy from blues and rock music, and also the discipline and intellectual content of the classical side. This was a time when creativity was highly valued, and the idea of music as a creative expression, whether from Hendrix or Miles or Herbie Hancock or Coltrane, was burned into my soul.

The other thing was that a lot of my favorite artists, like Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder, were trying to make the world a better place through their music. I think that idea eventually funneled into my interest in music healing. My previous album, State of Nature is all about healing, the split between humans and nature, and I try to get it across with a lot of liner notes, a lot of poetry. In some ways, I’d say that State of Nature is more refined, whereas Friends is more just raw energy and explosive fun. Those two probably give a good spectrum.

Jazz really folded all these qualities together for me, and it became the core, but it was never the only music that I liked. I’m glad that I can come from the jazz world as a viewpoint, an approach. Plus, the songs that I actually play in a jazz approach are really varied. Like, on State of Nature I do a movement from a Mozart piano concerto. On Friends, I did the Katy Perry song, and I did Bartok and I did Coltrane, and I improvised on all of them.

You’re well known for interpreting the standards of your time. What drew you to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”?

Well, it’s hard to miss Katy Perry, because she’s such a force to be reckoned with. What clicked for me was when I saw her do I think an "MTV Unplugged" thing where she assembled a jazz group and did a more jazz cafĂ© vibe performance, although they didn’t really play solos. I loved where she was going, and I thought, about taking that and doing a real jazz version of this song. I also liked her theme. I think that in the human world, we’re kind of evolving to going even beyond tolerance to the point of acceptance of the reality of how people are. I like the fact that her song makes that statement, too.

Can you talk about how you conceptualized the "touch technique"? Were you trying to extrapolate your piano style onto the guitar?

That was basically it. Having come from piano, I wanted to play more of a pianistic approach on the guitar. I was originally trying to create an electronic fingerboard instrument that would hook up to a synthesizer, but it would be a matrix of pushbuttons. That way you could play any combination of buttons, and you wouldn’t be limited to one note per string. I already knew enough about electronics to build the electronic circuitry, but I didn’t know enough about construction to actually build the fingerboard. In the meantime, while I was learning about construction, I tried to see how closely I could approximate this concept on guitar. You couldn’t do more than one note per string, but you could still do independent hands.

After about a week or two, I realized that doing this on guitar could be a complete technique in its own right, and it would have enormous possibilities. So I put down the electronic fingerboard idea, and I focused on developing it on guitar. Then years later, Harvey Star invented the Ztar, which was the exact same idea, so I didn’t have to do it—so now I play the Ztar, too.

Do pitfalls exist in possessing such a technique as yours, in handling that gift which you worked so hard to attain?

Every technique has strengths and limitations, and that’s true of the touch technique (which is what I call it). I never saw it as a replacement of conventional techniques. I do use it most of the time, because it gives me most of what I want. But one limitation, I would say, is that to really do it the way I do it, you have to set up your guitar in a particular way, which means that you can’t easily use it for conventional techniques very easily. You have to choose one or the other.

I would say that the touch technique allows you to do more things at once. You can play more melodies at the same time, but you can’t do as much expressively with one melody. Now, I think that I’ve really gone out of my way to compensate for that, so I think I’ve managed to still play expressively anyway. But there are levels of expression that I can only get when I’m picking.

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Ted Panken writes about jazz and creative music for DownBeat, Jazziz, and many other outlets; he broadcast it from 1985 to 2008 on WKCR. He recently launched a blog called Today Is The Question.

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