Stanley Jordan: The Healer

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Stanley Jordan
By Tom Cheswick
200805_062_depth1
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Stanley Jordan
By Tom Cheswick

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Stanley Jordan’s home in Sedona, Ariz., provides the guitarist with ample living, practice and office space, but if you ask him about its best feature, he literally looks outside the box. “I can pretty much walk out the door, pick a direction and go hiking,” says Jordan, 48. “And once I go out in the forest, I can go miles and miles without running into anyone. So while it’s inconvenient to be two hours away from an airport here, it’s worth it. I like to be in a place where nature is all around me.”

Sedona is in northwestern Arizona, just south of Flagstaff. It’s a small, picturesque town at an elevation of between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, with scenic surrounding mountains and rock formations. The remoteness provides Jordan with an escape from civilization, and the setting played a major role in shaping his new CD, State of Nature (Mack Avenue). The disc’s environmental sounds, and titles like “Forest Garden,” “A Place in Space,” “Ocean Breeze” and “Prayer for the Sea,” form a thematic rarity: a jazz concept album.

The disc is also a comeback of sorts, at least the kind an artist makes after going exactly where he wants to, rather than going away. State of Nature is Jordan’s first new studio CD for a recording label since he decided to move to Arizona in 1995. It follows Web-site-only releases like the healing, atmospheric Relaxing Music for Difficult Situations and the Middle Eastern-themed Ragas.

Shy and slightly guarded yet affable, Jordan comes across as someone who’s learned how to be more comfortable talking about himself as his career progressed. When the subject turns to his new recording venture, though, he gets animated. “This album ended up being a lot more than I intended in the beginning,” Jordan says. “I went on a path that took me in a different direction than when I started. And this was not an easy thing for the label, because we went way past the schedule and over budget. But they went with me, and had the belief in me. Things are different now with labels than when I started out. There was more of a corporate mentality back then, but now the industry isn’t having the success it used to have, and so a lot of people are having to think in a more open-minded way. And Mack Avenue came along with that way of thinking. It’s the perfect label for me right now.

“For instance, they said, ‘We want to be a label on the cutting edge of technology, so let us know if you have any ideas as to how we can do that,’” Jordan continues. “I’d never been asked that by a label. So I told them that one of my problems with a CD is that it doesn’t hold enough music at an hour-plus, which means you can only put out around an hour of music per year. I warned them that I was going to give them more than a CD’s worth of music. And they said, ‘Great, no problem, we can release bonus tracks and stuff online.’ What I love about this label is that they’re open to using whatever technology is available to get the music out, instead of asking for a lesser amount because that’s what the format dictates.”

Pushing the limits of the 78-minute CD capacity, State of Nature is as all-encompassing as the surroundings that inspired it. It shows Jordan’s full spectrum by being welcoming yet occasionally overwhelming, the way Jaco Pastorius’ second solo album, Word of Mouth, appeared when it was released in 1981. There are complex Jordan originals, brief interludes, environmental sounds, pop tunes, classical pieces and jazz standards. The composer also shows every aspect of his playing on guitar, and adds surprising parts on piano, his first instrument. The disc may therefore come across as a departure to many Jordan listeners, but not to Jordan.

“It makes everything else I’ve done feel like a departure,” he says. “I’d been so tied into the ego of being the recording artist and frontman that I’d been afraid to do anything for a label that didn’t fit that. I’m finally feeling like I’m doing everything that my music is really about.

“We recorded primarily in California, but parts were recorded while I was on a fall tour,” he continues. “So we did bits and pieces in a few other studios, which I actually like. I got to work with different people, and got different influences and different sounds. I think there’s something that happens to a project when you go to a lot of places and a lot of people get involved. It can take on a larger-than-life quality. For example, working with virtuoso cellist Meta Weiss. I used to teach her when she was a kid, and when I realized that I wanted cello on this record, I called her up. She’d just started at Rice University, so I said, ‘I’m playing in Austin; why don’t we do a session while I’m in Texas?’”

Weiss appears on both “Forest Garden” and the Joe Jackson pop hit “Steppin’ Out” (which also features Jordan’s 24-year-old daughter, California-based singer-songwriter Julia Jordan, on vocals). Other guests include Jordan’s veteran rhythm section of bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Kenwood Dennard on several originals. Jordan’s other touring drummer, David Haynes, appears on Miles Davis’ “All Blues” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father;” sitarist Jay Kishor on “Ocean Breeze,” and the guitarist’s Brazilian touring band (bassist Dudu Lima, drummer Ivan Conti) on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Insensatez.”

“I knew Kenwood was teaching at Berklee, and I really wanted him to play on the record,” Jordan says. “I called him up and arranged to have him come to New York. I was told we’d record at Avatar Studios, which I’d never heard of, even though I’d done a lot of work in New York studios. When I got there, it made sense—it was the old Power Station! To be with Kenwood and Charnett, the old trio from the late ’80s and early ’90s, was great. We got so silly, and it seemed like old times.”

What makes State of Nature different from old times is the relative infrequency of the playing style that at once helped make Jordan famous, yet became his burden of expectation. That expectation was cemented by Jordan’s 1985 debut album, Magic Touch (Blue Note). Its title referred to the guitarist’s incredible two-handed “touch” technique, in which he pianistically tapped notes on the fretboard rather than strumming them with a pick.

“I’d developed a tuning in fourths, E-A-D-C-G-F, where the two highest-pitched strings were up a half-step,” Jordan says. “It was the first way I’d ever tuned my guitar. Those open strings are more resonant that way. In jazz, where you’re practically composing while you’re playing, you need to be able to think more efficiently. I feel like, in jazz, this tuning is especially useful.”

Magic Touch featured several solo and a few full-band tracks, and more covers of jazz standards (“’Round Midnight,” “A Child is Born”) and pop hits (the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Michael Jackson’s “The Lady in My Life”) than originals. The album stayed at #1 on the Billboard jazz chart for nearly a year and was certified gold.

Jordan’s main guitar, designed by French luthier Patrice Vigier in 1982, aided his magic touch. It features a flat fretboard with very low action to aid the tapping technique. The guitarist often plays live without using an amplifier, since he feels his instrument doesn’t get as broad a sound spectrum from amps, which are designed to produce only specific ranges.

On State of Nature, there’s less tapping, solo tracks and cover tunes. Jordan’s compositional skills are front-and-center, and he plays the guitar more traditionally and rhythmically, and less as a novelty. There are several tracks on which he strums the guitar with either a flatpick or his thumb.

Still, Jordan adds the occasional high-degree-of-difficulty stunts that few others are capable of on State of Nature. Now comfortable as a multi-instrumentalist, he plays two guitars simultaneously on “Prayer For the Sea,” and both guitar and keyboards on “Steppin’ Out,” “Shadow Dance” and all three variations of “Mind Games.” Oh, and there are those little simultaneous, nonoverdubbed guitar and piano stunts—where he plays guitar with his left hand and piano with his right—on “All Blues” and “Song for My Father.”

“I’d done that off and on from the beginning, when I started using the two-handed technique on guitar,” Jordan says. “I just hadn’t developed it that much until now. I realized that I had to get out of my comfort zones for this album. I had to reach deeper into my music, and do whatever I’d been holding back. I realized that there were areas of my music that were really important to me that I wasn’t dealing with. One of those was playing the piano, even though I don’t have the same knowledge and training on piano as I have on guitar. But when I sit down at the piano, I get lost in the music. I just never really saw myself as a real piano player, because I’m intimidated. The world doesn’t need another piano player, because so many great ones are already out there.

“But I realized that, for all these years, I had been a frustrated piano player,” Jordan confesses. “That was part of the reason why I tried to figure out how to play the guitar more like a piano. But going back to the piano has freed me up to actually play the guitar like a guitar. What a concept! The solo on ‘Steppin’ Out’ is played with a pick on a hollow-bodied guitar. ‘Ocean Breeze’ is played with a pick as well. I played the short ‘Mind Games’ interludes with my thumb, and ‘All Blues’ has a thumb-style solo. I’m even playing house pianos on tour now. If I don’t like the piano somewhere, I just don’t play it, since no one expects me to play it anyway. In the end, I realized that I had to make my music, whatever that music is, and not worry about how it would be judged.”

That may be the result of Magic Touch being judged as a masterwork, and subsequent releases not always being greeted with the same enthusiasm. In a 1985 Guitar Player story after the guitarist’s debut release, Jim Ferguson wrote that Jordan possessed “counterpoint, facility, and range previously unknown to the instrument ... Jordan’s two-handed pianistic approach has extended the limits of the guitar ... Few players in the history of music have brought an instrument to a more radical crossroad.”

Magic Touch received two Grammy nominations and made Jordan a star, a distinction the guitarist appeared to shy away from over the next decade, even before he retreated to Arizona. But Jordan has always thought outside the box, both guitaristically and personally. To find out why, you must trace the Chicago native’s roots back to what led up to Magic Touch, a major-label debut that could’ve happened a few years earlier if not for his unorthodox career choice.

“I grew up primarily in Northern California,” Jordan says. “Initially, we moved from Chicago to the East Coast. We lived in Baltimore and Philadelphia, and then moved to California when I was around 5. My father was in the high-tech industry, so we moved to Silicon Valley before they even called it Silicon Valley. My father inspired me in a lot of ways, including my interest in technology. That’s why I wanted to record ‘Song for My Father.’ I remember the technology being around there when I was young, but the area wasn’t so well known for it yet. There was a lot more open space; more orchards and unpaved land.”

Jordan studied classical piano during those childhood years, and still counts Bach and Mozart among his main influences. A solo guitar reading of “Andante From Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21” is featured on State of Nature.

After transcribing his piano technique to the guitar when his age hit double-digits, Jordan found his true calling. He headed east again in his late teens to study, of all things, computer music at Princeton University in New Jersey. He earned his degree in music theory and composition in 1981. “I’d heard an interview with Bobby Hutcherson, who also lived in the Bay Area,” Jordan says, “and he was talking about his history, and especially his time in New York City. He was saying that, in jazz, you really needed to go there at some point. That’s when I figured I’d eventually end up in New York. I’d been intrigued by technology ever since I was a kid, which is part of the reason I had the opportunity to go to Princeton. It was close to New York, so I thought it would be a package deal. I did occasional things in New York while I was in college, but I found that I needed to hold back on that a little bit. Every time I went there, I was so drawn in; it was like this vacuum that was pulling at me. I realized that if I wanted to finish my degree, I had to only go there occasionally.”

That changed after his graduation from Princeton. Jordan became a modern-day troubadour, playing wherever he was allowed to set up along routes through the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast. Word followed, and spread. “I had recorded an independent album called Touch Sensitive that was released in 1982,” Jordan says. “When I started touring the country solo, I had that record with me and available. My first professional gig was at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1982. I was living in New Jersey and New York City for a while after college. But when I actually lived in New York, I found that I didn’t do as much there as I could have. I’d go on the road, and then I’d come back home, and I’d spend so much time there. I was glad to be home and relax, and do my nerdy things.”

Jordan certainly didn’t relax the high standards he’d set for himself, though. After an audition for Elektra Musician label head Bruce Lundvall, Jordan was offered a recording contract on the spot. He turned it down. “I wasn’t ready yet,” he says. “It’s not that I’d rather play on the streets than have a record deal. I really appreciated the fact that Bruce Lundvall wanted to work with me, but I just wanted everything to be right. I was a bit afraid of getting sucked into the industry. For me, it’s about the music. I certainly wanted to be successful, financially as well, but I figured that if I didn’t feel ready to do it, then it wasn’t the right time.

“While I was out on the road,” Jordan continues, “Bruce would call me up occasionally to see how I was doing. I eventually moved back to New York, and was set to tell Bruce that I was ready to work with him. The timing was amazing, because I went into Elektra to work out a deal, and Bruce said, ‘I can’t talk to you about this today, because I don’t work here anymore. Last night, I got a call from the chairman of Capitol Industries, and they’re going to revise Blue Note. They want me to head up the label, and I want you to be the first artist I sign.’ I couldn’t have asked for better timing. It was the best possible situation. I felt I’d been rewarded by resisting the temptation to sign earlier. By sticking to my principles, I ended up with something even better.”

The resulting Magic Touch is still special to Jordan. “I think it was a very good introduction,” he says. “People have told me through the years that it’s their favorite among my albums, and I think that’s because a lot of people liked my solo stuff, which Magic Touch was built around. The marketing and presentation of that album focused on my technique, and that freed me up to explore more musical styles, so I was relatively spared of the corporate pigeonholing. The album had more of a variety than the average release. It opened a lot of doors for me.”

Subsequent releases Standards, Vol. 1, Flying Home and Cornucopia are, by comparison, all out-of-print. Jordan thinks he knows why. “I’ve had some difficulties with the music world,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of people try to box me in, narrow me down to a more limited concept. I’ve always had difficulty with that, and reached the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d started thinking more in a committee mentality; the decisions felt better to me if everyone else was on board. The Standards album was a case in point. I love standards, too, but that album put my compositions on the back burner. I realized that I was going to have to limit myself to the narrow frame the industry was trying to put around me if I wanted to stay in music full-time. I had trouble shoe-horning my music into the corporate mentality, and I finally realized that I just couldn’t do it.”

A 1991 live album with Moffett and Dennard, Stolen Moments, closed out Jordan’s Blue Note recording career (though another live set and a best-of collection were later released). The guitarist’s last label recording, Bolero, came out on Arista. It was 1994, and Jordan was ready for both career and geographic changes. “I decided that I wanted to leave the East Coast,” Jordan says, “because I wanted a more chilled-out lifestyle. I’d already lived in California, and wanted something different from that. So I went to Arizona right around the same time I got involved with music therapy. Then I found out that ASU [Arizona State University] had a really good music therapy program, so I’m studying toward a degree there now.”

One of Jordan’s studies at Princeton was granular synthesis, something that’s surfaced only occasionally in his subsequent recording catalog. “Prayer for the Sea,” from State of Nature, presented the latest opportunity. “I’ve mainly used computers and mathematics when composing,” he says. “Princeton was a specialized music school, and computers meant that, for the first time in human history, we could make any possible sound that could come out of a speaker. My specialty was granular synthesis, something I haven’t really had many compositional reasons to use since. I was caught up in appearing to be a musician who didn’t need electronics. But on ‘Prayer for the Sea,’ I wanted to capture the feeling and spirit of the ocean. I used a synthesizer to create the sounds, and each sound sparkle within them is a grain. So I used the grains to eventually make these flowing waves of sound.”

Jordan’s manager since 2005, Vernon Hammond, is based in Princeton. The relationship allows the guitarist to revisit, and keep up with, events in the area that helped nurture his career. Hammond was also a vital component in luring Jordan further back into the music business. “Vernon understands that I need to be involved in the marketing aspect of the music business,” he says. “I met him through Wynton [Marsalis] back in the ’80s, when I opened some shows for Wynton. Vernon set up my whole new situation, because he knew that a label had to be open to my ideas. Now, both my manager and label want me to be satisfied with the results. I’m really happy to have people around me who think that way. I plan to do a few records for Mack Avenue.”

Between such relationships, and his interests in music therapy and teaching, Jordan appears to have finally found a happy medium between disparate entities—the art of music, and the music business. “I’ve been playing music in a spa while people are getting a massage,” Jordan says. “The main clinic that I’ve worked with so far, Bothell Integrated Health, is based near Seattle. They’ve told me that, during a massage, it normally takes around 10 minutes for the person to really let the therapist in. But when I’m playing, it seems to happen instantly. The people are so much more physically and emotionally available. Live music, if it’s played well, has a really deep effect. It’s nurturing to people, and can make the experience more nutritious for them. It’s a whole wellness thing I’m developing, and something that I’ll be adding to my Web site.”

That Web site is as varied as State of Nature and Jordan himself, offering many facets that go beyond the standard bio/music/touring format. “I’ve made a major push toward doing more teaching,” he says. “My best friend and music teacher for many years, Elroy Jones, passed away at the end of the ’90s. He was a jazz guitarist in the Bay Area. It was sudden and unexpected, and made me realize that there was so much that I still wanted to learn from him. I also realized the importance of passing on what we know while we still can. So I’ve started online music lessons, where I teach by using video conferencing on my Web site.

“I recently did a teaching clinic in Panama,” Jordan continues, “and one of the things I told the students is that there are two languages that they needed to know. And that they had to be fluent in both, not just get stuck in one, and to be able to translate between the two. One is the technical language of music, the stuff that can be described with mathematics, scales and patterns. The other is the experiential language, where you use more metaphors and make up terms as you go along. With the technical side, there are agreed-upon terms that are important to learn. With the other side, it’s however you can get an idea across. Some young students get to the stage where they’re getting their music together, but they’re getting deep into the pattern language, which is easy to get lost in, and not give enough attention to the non-technical side.”

Jordan has even owned a bookstore since 2005, Sedona Books and Music, but his recent hectic schedule hasn’t allowed him to be there. “It’s a labor of love, but I haven’t really had time to open the store much lately,” he says. “I like to physically be there. I love books, and we have them in all categories, with an especially good collection of music books. You’d probably be hard-pressed to find a retail store that has more music therapy books. We also have some musical instruments, not a huge selection, but well selected. We feature live music as well. I view it as an important service to the community. There’s a really strong educational mission to the store, because I try to bring in things that people wouldn’t necessarily know about. That’s why it’s been hard for me not to be able to be there. I need to find someone who gets what the store is about and can be there when I’m on the road.”

Jordan’s touring schedule has already taken him through Canada, Panama and several U.S. destinations this year, with Moffett on bass and either Dennard or Haynes on drums. He has trio dates forthcoming in the U.S and Portugal. But his home of the past 14 years still appears to be where the guitarist most finds his own state of nature.

“Sedona is a really interesting and beautiful place,” he says. “I want to have music camps out here, and try to integrate music with nature. Part of what’s going on with me now, with this album and everything else, is realizing that the natural world is really important to me, and always has been. And part of my job is to take the energy of nature and put it into music.”

Gearbox

Vigier “Arpege” guitars

Phonic Helix-12 mixer

Radial Designs JDI direct box

Originally published in May 2008

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