One of my favorite jazz guitarists of all time is Stanley Jordan. Like most people, I first heard his playing on the 1985 Blue Note album, Magic Touch. This album was at the top of the Billboard Jazz charts for something like an entire year, easily a record! I still listen to that album and can hardly believe it is only one guitar playing.
The title of the album is a play on Jordan’s “touch technique” or two-handed tapping method of playing the guitar. His guitar has been set up with a very low action, with the strings very close to the fingerboard. He simply has to press a string down to the fret and a note sounds. This is different from the normal way of playing a guitar by fretting a note and then plucking or strumming the string with the other hand. Jordan’s right hand is then free to move up to the fingerboard and fret more notes, playing an independent line of its own. Now the guitar can play music as complex as a piano, and Stanley Jordan makes full use of the possibilities. Another unique element of his guitar playing is the way he tunes his strings. Instead of the normal EADGBE arraignment (from the lowest sounding string to the highest), Stanley’s guitar is tuned in perfect fourths, EADGCF. This makes the fingerboard symmetrical and in Jordan’s mind, more logical.
You really have to see this in live action to get the full effect. Here is a live track with a great rhythm section of Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, Charnet Moffett on bass, and the late, great Kenny Kirkland on piano. Everyone is in top form in this video.
Stanley Jordan is a very open-minded, spiritual guy. He has listened to Indian Ragas, so called pop music, jazz from all ages, really just any music he can get his ears on. Now I normally am not a fan of the so called “Smooth Jazz” category. It’s okay, but I don’t usually relate it to the kind of Jazz that I love. Jordan, however, has had some success on the smooth jazz charts, and he puts enough meat in the tunes to make me really enjoy it (in spite of myself).
I’ve had the good fortune of seeing Stanley Jordan play live on two occasions. Once in Chicago in 1989, and again here in Detroit at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in 2009, shortly after he had signed with Mack Avenue Records. I think the success of his early Magic Touch album forces him to drag around tunes like “Eleanor Rigby” from that record almost everywhere he goes. It’s the curse of having a hit record. Fortunately, he is a musical genius, and everything still sounds fresh in the twenty years between performances I attended. “Eleanor Rigby” is an energetic, intense experience in the hands of Jordan. He often plays “Over the Rainbow” as an encore, and this simple tune is sheer brilliance at the end of the night. After some of the over-the-the top, frenetic, music-of-many-notes that a gig of his has been filled with, Stanley just tucks us all away to bed with a bit of beauty. I recommend listening to these two back to back.
Stanley Jordan’s latest release, on the Mack Avenue Records label, is Friends. He has invited some great musicians and close friends to join him on this album, and it is a great listen.