In early 1993, when the editors of Musician magazine published their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, they praised Stanley Jordan as a one-of-a-kind talent whose recent albums "point to a leaner, more spacious style, which only means he's getting wiser." But when that article was written, Jordan didn't have any recent albums: Bolero, his new recording on Arista Records, is his first disc in more than four years. Jordan didn't tour during this period, either; after riding the high crest of visibility and acclaim throughout most of the Eighties, he dropped out of sight.
What happened? Did he simply burn out?
"Well, kind of," Jordan admits. "It just got to the point where I had so many professional obligations that they started to run my life. I wanted to get my life back, because I'm not only interested in being a recording artist or going on the road. There are a lot of other things I want to do in my life. So I realized I needed to take some time off for myself. Spiritually, it was a great thing for me. I did a lot of things I wanted to do."
Indeed, Jordan's vacation from the guitar allowed him to create music-oriented software programs that he described in several articles he wrote for computer publications. But perhaps his biggest reason for taking a break was physical: He developed repetitive-motion strain in both arms. "The pain was taking away my motivation to play," he says. "I was really afraid on one level. So I thought that until I could figure out how to do this right, I'd actually be shortening my career by just playing."
What made this ailment especially problematic was Jordan's unprecedented approach to his instrument--a style he began developing at age sixteen. Jordan discovered that by tuning his guitar into fourths (like a keyboard), he could expand its chordal vocabulary. He took advantage of this realization by hammering contrapuntal lines on the fretboard using both his hands. This unique style, dubbed "tapping," allowed Jordan to play his own bass parts and comp against his own solos.
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While most critics fawned over 1984's Magic Touch, Jordan's debut on the Blue Note label, some reviewers tossed off tapping as just another guitar gimmick. But it was far more than that, as Jordan demonstrated during his live performances. In concert, observers could see for themselves that his technique hadn't been enhanced in the studio. It was real--two hands tapping wildly, working as separate entities. Jordan literally played one instrument as if it were two.
And then, shortly after he turned thirty, the repetitive-motion strain hit. He soon realized that he might have to take a few steps backward in order to start moving forward again. "I had to change my whole approach to my technique--and the person who taught me how to do that was not a musician," he notes. "He was an M.D. who does sports and performing-arts medicine. He watched me play and showed me what I was doing wrong. Fortunately, there were only two crucial things. The main one was that I had to develop a new kind of guitar strap that positions the guitar a little differently. And I had to pay attention to certain things--like not looking down so far, because I was putting strain on my neck that was affecting my wrists." The doctor also taught him how to play with his wrists held straight: "You need to have this energy flow, and I was blocking that off by bending my wrists," he adds. "It's like you are requiring a lot of your hands, but you're not supplying a lot to your hands."
Once he'd altered his playing habits, Jordan changed labels and began working on Bolero. He subsequently planned a tour to showcase his new material and put together a fresh band featuring drummer Kenwood Dennard, keyboard/percussionist Oscar Deric Brown, and T.M. Stevens, an energetic rock bass player who appeared on Steve Vai's last record.
The centerpiece of the set this band is playing during its current road trip is Jordan's 23-minute version of Ravel's Bolero, which is broken into six segments on the new release. The piece, originally written as a practice exercise for orchestra, is certainly familiar, but Jordan--who in the past has breathed new life into beaten-to-death tunes such as "Stairway to Heaven" and "Eleanor Rigby"--manages to revitalize it. While describing his reasons for tackling it, he brims with enthusiasm.
"[Ravel's] Bolero is basically a dance," he says. "What we did is, we modernized it by playing it over the beats that people are dancing to today. So in a way, we haven't really departed from the spirit of it--the idea that it is dance music. The other thing is that we approached it from a worldbeat perspective. By doing that, I think we are bringing out something that was already there to begin with in the original version--because Ravel had heritage from the Basque people of northern Spain, and he loved Spanish culture and music. This piece is an expression of that. Taking that one step further, tracing the roots of Spanish culture, you end up getting into North Africa and that whole African connection.
"To me, Bolero is significant because you can say it's a piece of serious European art music that doesn't try to hide from the African roots and sort of celebrates them," he continues. "Also, Ravel was known for his genius as an orchestrator. Today, because we have modern synthesizers, we have an opportunity to revisit that, because synthesizers can make so many sounds. That, for the composer, is like a playground. It would be wonderful to hear what Ravel would have done if synthesizers had been available to him. We decided to approach the sound, the orchestration, with a lot of care, but to use modern instruments. We just kind of wanted to see what would happen."
The results vary. Jordan's Bolero includes some stunning guitar wizardry, African vocal chanting, cool rhythmic grooves and a trip through techno-pop wonderland that will likely generate a great deal of interest even though it throws off fewer creative sparks than other sections. Fortunately, Jordan's work elsewhere on the album is lush and vivid. For instance, "Plato's Blues," the only original on the disc, displays Jordan's superb abilities as a composer.
Jordan hopes to demonstrate these skills in another arena--perhaps film scoring--in the near future. Meanwhile, he wants to make up for lost time. "After we get off the road, I'm going to be going back to writing and working on another record," he says. "I don't feel like I need to take any more time off. I feel I've gotten my fix--for now. I'm really ready to go back into the world, you know. I feel like I've grown up a little bit, too. I feel a lot more ready to be out here."
Clearly, Jordan is getting wiser.
Stanley Jordan. 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $16, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.
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