One criticism of jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan’s career was that his talent has not always been in step with his sense of taste. There’s no accounting for taste, yes, but his discography is a little puzzling. I remember the first time I heard him; it was in high school music theory class and our teacher put some music on before the morning bell rang. A group of us looked up and stared at one another as we heard all of these clean, expressive notes flying around. It sounded like three guitars at once, but our teacher assured us that it was one dude, one guitar, one take. I eventually found Standards, Vol. 1 at my local library and was delighted to find a guitar player who approached his instrument like a piano. Other selections from the library, like Bolero and Flying Home, however, snuffed this marvelous feeling and mentally transported me to the dentist’s office. It made him an enigma for me for a while, and I know I was not alone because when State of Nature came out in 2008 many jazz fans were pleased to hear Jordan getting down to business once again. He was covering Miles Davis, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Horace Silver, and Mozart.
Now Stanley Jordan comes back bringing his Friends, making an album that stretches over even more territory than his last album. And what a list of friends it is: fellow guitarists Charlie Hunter, Mike Stern, Russell Malone and Bucky Pizzarelli, violinist Regina Carter, saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Ronnie Law, bassists Christian McBride and Charnett Moffett, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and drummer Kenwood Dennard. He covers Katy Perry, Charlie Christian and Coltrane on the guitar and Bartok on the piano. His originals rival the covers in being memorable and the tone of the album grows neither light and frivolous nor serious and humorless. Given how all-over-place place Friends is, it holds together as an album surprisingly well.
One thing that makes Friends so fun is that certain tracks carry the spirit of a guitar summit. The minor key blues-funk of “Walkin’ the Dog” shows Jordan sharing the lead with Charlie Hunter. Hunter, for those of you who may not know, plays guitar and bass simultaneously thanks to his Fostex guitar (I’ve seen it myself – it’s the damnedest thing). Since Jordan himself already sounds like two guitarists at the very least, these guys can probably take a duet act on the road and fool blind people the world over. But as tempting as it likely was to burn six-string rubber on “Walkin’ the Dog,” Hunter and Jordan maintain a sense of fun without letting things get too acrobatic. It’s strangely perfect for them. Mike Stern, whom I like to think of as Pat Metheny with a distortion knob, jumps in for the Coltrane standard “Giant Steps”, giving it a far breezier feel than any rendition you may have heard up to this point. The axe wielding continues as old-school hand Bucky Pizzarelli and cool bop specialist Russell Malone simmer over the Benny Goodman/Charlie Christian number “Seven Come Eleven”. Both Malone and Hunter were turned on to jazz by listening to organist Jimmy Smith, guaranteeing a lower register sound on their guitars. As Jordan himself states in the press release, it nicely balances his upper-register tendencies.
Charlie Hunter also lends a hand on “I Kissed A Girl”. First, I had to check to see if it was a Jill Sobule cover of a Katy Perry cover. When I discovered it was the latter, I thought “just what we need – more attention sent Perry’s way.” Good news, though; this version really cooks, especially in the last third when a boogie vamp links arms with knot-tight drumbeat. As Hunter and Jordan drive it home, I think “man, I really don’t care if I ever have to hear the original again.”
Not all of Stanley Jordan’s friends are guitarists. Kenny Garrett and Nicholas Payton take center stage on Jordan’s hard bop original “Capital J.” Violinist and MacArthur Fellow Regina Carter gives two very different performances on Friends. The fact that she can play “Samba Delight” one moment and then accompany Jordan’s rubato piano performance on Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra”, and do both convincingly, speaks volumes to her flexibility and versatility as a musician. But Stanley Jordan is no slouch either. He plays guitar and piano simultaneously on the Katy Perry cover. Show off.
The choice for the last track may strike most listeners as odd. But then again, most listeners out there have not studied composition with Milton Babbit in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Babbit passed away shortly before Jordan started the sessions for Friends, and you could say that the track “One for Milton” gives a nod to the most high-profile friend one could have. Jordan and Russell take 12-tone leads simultaneously, often to schizophrenic affect, while Kenwood Dennard slides in and out almost undetected. There is a sense of meter and flow to this 100% improvised, totally modern mess of sound that represents a crossing of the telepathy of jazz experts and the ability to play completely out of form.
“Bathed In Light” is perhaps the one track on Friends that flirts with the style Jordan pursued when he was trying to get into good graces with Blue Note during the ’80s. The rest of Friends, much like his previous album, is a wonderful combination of the old, new and perhaps more to come. Unlike some of his other works, Friends will age quite well.