Monday, January 9, 2012

All That Jazz: The Lady In My Life

Stanley Jordan: The Lady In My Life

You can argue whether Stanley Jordan is the most talented guitarist ever (whatever that means), but there is no argument that he is the most talented musician that I am personally acquainted with. Stanley was a year ahead of me in college and worked at WPRB, where I sometimes followed him on the air. Even then, it was clear that he was prodigiously talented, and we were all in awe of his playing, not to mention the fact that he was, and is, a nice guy. His claim to fame was his mastery of the “tapping” technique, in which he uses both hands to tap the strings, allowing himself to play multiple lines at the same time, so it often sounds like more than one guitar is playing.

After he graduated from Princeton in 1981, he went off and, I understand, played on the streets. He released an independent record in 1982, but burst upon the jazz scene in 1984 when he made a surprise unscheduled appearance at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York and blew the audience and critics away. I remember reading articles in The New York Times about this and being so excited for Stanley. He followed up this triumph with his major label debut on Blue Note Records, “Magic Touch”, which included his versions of jazz standards, originals and covers of pop and rock tunes, including “The Lady in My Life”, originally done by a little-known singer named Michael Jackson. It was amazing to hear the quality and confidence of his playing on “Magic Touch”, and amusing to see Stanley—the guy from college—in the video for this song on MTV, back when they played music, back when they even played good music. (Possibly more amusing was his cameo in the Bruce Willis/Kim Basinger movie “Blind Date”). “Magic Touch” topped the jazz charts, and appeared on the Billboard 200 and R&B/Hip Hop charts. I got to see him perform a couple of times in jazz clubs in New York, and continued to be impressed by his music and his graciousness. (That means he either actually remembered me, or pretended to).

Unfortunately, the music business isn’t really set up for someone with Stanley’s eclectic tastes, and certainly wasn’t in the ‘80s and ‘90’s. His albums bounced around from straight jazz, to rock covers (even “Stairway to Heaven”), to Ravel’s Bolero, and other places in between. This meant that he was not doctrinaire enough for the jazz purists, and there was really no market for instrumental versions of popular songs. Ultimately, he cut back on touring and recording and devoted himself to music therapy.

I ran into Stanley last summer at his 30th college reunion, and he was excited about his soon-to be released album, “Friends”, in which he played with a number of great guest musicians, including Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, Regina Carter, Kenwood Dennard, Bucky Pizzarelli, Mike Stern and Charlie Hunter. The album came out a few months ago, and reaffirming his eclectic tastes, it includes jazz standards, classical pieces, originals and a Katy Perry cover. I heartily recommend it. Maybe now, in the Internet era, where music distribution is more democratic, the world will finally catch up to Stanley Jordan’s virtuosity and broad vision.

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