Story by Ira Ochs
Stanley Jordan is a difficult musician to assess. He has an engaging and accessible sound, a youthful and open stage demeanor, and technical ability that is simply otherworldly. However, his recording career is marked largely by disappointments, causing him to remain a second-tier jazz star. So when I went to see Jordan at the Close Up 2 Smooth Jazz Festival last Saturday night, I was looking not only to revel in his talents, but to find out for myself why he isn't even better.
and Photos by James Walker, Jr.
Stanley Jordan, for those unfamiliar with his work, is a tapping guitarist. By lowering the height of his guitar strings, Jordan is able to play a full line with only one hand - allowing him to play two lines at once, essentially as if he were playing a piano. He also used a keyboard, which enabled some astonishing single-person duets. On Saturday Jordan was accompanied by two longtime collaborators, Charnett Moffet on upright bass and David Haynes on drums.
Jordan's hour and a half long set was made up of mostly standards. Although Jordan opened conservatively - with "Insensatez" by Antonio Carlos Jobim and "All Blues" by Miles Davis, he instantly won me over with his inspired melodies and his brilliant technique. Tappers run the risk of failing to connect with their audiences - their approach forces them to sacrifice dynamic range and depth of tone, and they frequently come off as gimmicky. However, Jordan's playing seemed very organic and sincere, and it never struck me as odd that he was playing chords and melody simultaneously. The results of his one hand on piano/one hand on guitar technique were mixed, at best. While he certainly had the ability to play this way, his solos with this combination were relatively forgettable. However, when he focused entirely on guitar, he could switch between chord-melody, double-handed harmonized melody, double chords, and conventional guitar technique at will; which dramatically opened up his sound. His solo piano playing, featured on an extended introduction to "Song For My Father," was actually quite good, achieving spacey but complex harmonies that evoked Herbie Hancock. I would have liked to heard this on a grand piano rather than the $2000 Yamaha keyboard that was used. Overall, there were numerous difficulties with the sound at this concert, but with an outdoor festival, that is almost to be expected.
Jordan played three of the songs - almost half the set - on solo guitar, with mostly good results. His first solo was the slow movement from Mozart's 21st piano concerto. Although it was impressive that he was technically able to play this at all, I found this to be a reach. Despite Jordan's addition of many "blue notes," I found the piece relatively stiff, without much personal inflection. Jordan's other two solo contributions -- his takes on Simon and Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa" and Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," were less ambitious, and Jordan rewarded the audience with virtuousic and imaginative interpretations that were the height of the evening.
Jordan closed the set a pair of progressive, fusion-y originals with his trio. Bassist Charnett Moffet opened one of these, "Return Expedition," with an impressive and lengthy bowed solo through several effects pedals, including a Hendrix-esque "Star Spangled Banner," to the great delight of the crowd. Moffet was extremely impressive throughout the set - his style was active enough to fill out the sound and have conversational duets with Jordan, but also strong enough to keep the energy level high throughout. Drummer David Haynes took more of a background role, anchoring the group with his crisp fusion style. Together, I thought that Moffet and Haynes made an ideal rhythm section for Jordan.
Overall, there were some shortcomings with Jordan's set - he did lose some of his musicality during his more ambitious technical sections, and his choice of material was slightly too easy for my taste. But overall, I found Jordan's set to be very engaging and inspiring, and I would happily see him and his trio again.