[21 April 2008]
In the 1980s, mainstream jazz suddenly seemed relevant again. After that first wave of rock (and then that first wave of too-often indulgent and gimmicky jazz-rock fusion) had passed, there seemed to be a fresh interest in jazz—and new jazz at that. The headline, of course, was the return to “mainstream” playing as signaled by the sudden star treatment for a certain young trumpeter out of New Orleans who could play classical, play jazz, and wear suits.
But just as 1980s housing prices rose then crashed on a gimmick, so was the jazz renaissance only half-true. Two of the jazz Happy Meals from that time are vocalist Bobby McFerrin and guitarist Stanley Jordan. Not that McFerrin and Jordan aren’t talented musicians—they are. But they were sold to jazz fans in the ‘80s like a Reagan tax cut—all pleasure and no cost, “Don’t worry, be happy.” McFerrin was a magical singer who could create an entire band alone on stage with no overdubbing, but just chest slapping, falsetto, bass line, and everything in between. I remember seeing him do every song from The Wizard of Oz in 15 minutes before a packed concert hall, and it was a standing ovation moment. Twenty years later, I still cherish the memory, but McFerrin—and I—have moved on to more substantive work.
Stanley Jordan was sold on the same gimmick, in a way, with a side of Eddie Van Halen.
Jordan had perfected a “new way to the play the guitar”—a revolutionary tapping technique that allowed him to play separately with both hands. Without overdubbing, Jordan could play a lead line and chords simultaneously, simply by tapping the strings against the fretboard in the manner of Van Halen’s iconic solos of the time, from his own discs and from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I mean, it was amazing! How did he do that?
But, as all artists who rely on this sort of thing normally find out, amazingness has its limits.
The year 2008 finds Jordan releasing his first album in a decade. According to Jordan, “frustrated with the demands of the commercial music industry among other things, [he] went into a self-imposed exile from the rat race,” which entailed a retreat to the mountains of the southwest and an involvement in healing and study in “Music Therapy and Sonification.” Now, I’m not sure what “sonification” is, but if it involves making a wildly inconsistent and craven pu-pu platter of a comeback album, then Jordan has indeed mastered it.
On State of Nature, Jordan proves that he can still play, but he also proves that his playing has neither deepened nor focused since his 1985 debut. If his “tapping technique” ever meant anything, time—and Garage Band or ProTools being available in every basement all over America—has erased it. The advance publicity for the album trumpets the fact that “beyond his signature touch technique, Stanley utilizes other revolutionary techniques such as playing two guitars at once, playing guitar and piano simultaneously, and incorporating sounds of nature that he recorded himself.” Wow! But, does it sound good? The answer is that it sounds pretty okay-ish on some tracks, not so great other places, and, pretty much everywhere, there is an aimless awkwardness afoot.
It’s useful to catalog the tunes to get a handle on the lack of direction here. (A) There are two folkish duets with cellist Meta Weiss that are harmless pseudo-classical compositions in the Windham Hill “new age” style. (B) There are three ditties less than a minute long where Jordan fiddles about on guitar and piano in counterpoint. (C) There is one overt show-off piece for tapping on which Jordan plays an arrangement of a famous movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21. (D) There are three played-to-death jazz standards (“All Blues”, “Song for My Father”, and “How Insensitive”) done with little distinction. (E) There are three vaguely Pat Metheny Group-ish songs that have an inoffensive smooth jazz groove, and feature either a sitar-sounding instrument (“Ocean Breeze”) or a rocked-out lead sound (“Shadow Dance”) or blippy keyboard sequencing (“Prayer for the Sea”). (F) There is one shameless tack back to the 1980s—and bid for radio play—in a cover of Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit “Steppin’ Out” that includes the obligatory cheesy background vocals behind Jordan’s lead. And finally, (G) There is one tasty original that bids for jazz legitimacy (“A Place in Space”), but is then destroyed by a double-time section that tempts Jordan to play as fast as possible with little regard for melody or taste.
So, it’s a mess.
There’s plenty of verbiage in the advance material how this album is “about” getting back to nature, and one wonders if omitting the jazz material (and “Steppin’ Out”) might have created a more cohesive and contemplative album that would allow Jordan to reemerge as the new man he apparently is. But that’s marketing talk. Musically, the problems are harder to diagnose. Jordan plays a good deal of adequate, but less than scintillating piano—a mixture between cocktail-y jazz tinkling and pop styling. It’s neither unprofessional nor weak, but on the tunes where it takes away from solo time for bassist Charnett Moffett, this indulgence is hard to fathom. The guitar playing, then, should pop as Jordan’s obvious strength, but somehow that has started to sound quite tinkly too. When he using the tapping method, Jordan’s tone is paper thin-to-nonexistent, and in other spots he seems like a player in search of a real identity. In a jazz guitar marketplace where the best-selling players (Metheny, Scofield, Frisell) and the upcoming cats (say, Lionel Louke) all have distinctive and rich sounds, there would seem to be little room for Jordan’s lack of clarity.
There are some moments here, of course, where having Stanley Jordan back feels just right. I would rather like to see him play the Mozart arrangement all alone on a stage—it is both wonderfully faithful to the original and pleasantly its own. And the first half of “Place in Space” reminds me how great it was to have a jazz guitarist who was aware of a tune like “Milestones”, but also understood that we needed some breezier music too, particularly on a Sunday afternoon during those mad years when you were never sure whether Ronnie was going to condemn the Soviet Union or squash the air traffic controllers’ union.
In 2008, of course, we have just as many needs for solace and creativity. And while Stanley Jordan hopes to heal us and green us with his music, State of Nature contains too much variety and too little nurturing sunshine to make an impact. It arrives at your ear like an old girlfriend—a pleasant memory bathed in generous affection but, honestly, no longer to your taste.