In a career that took flight in 1985 with immediate commercial and critical acclaim, guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan has consistently displayed a chameleonic musical persona of openness, imagination, versatility, respect and maverick daring. Be it bold reinventions of classical masterpieces or soulful explorations through pop-rock hits, to blazing straight ahead jazz forays and ultramodern improvisational works—solo or with a group—Jordan can always be counted on to take listeners on breathless journeys into the unexpected.
On his latest Mack Avenue recording, Friends, Jordan takes the time-honored path of inviting a handpicked cadre of guests: guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli, Mike Stern, Russell Malone and Charlie Hunter; violinist Regina Carter; saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Ronnie Laws; trumpeter Nicholas Payton; bassists Christian McBride and Charnett Moffett; and drummer Kenwood Dennard. The results proved truly outstanding on numbers ranging from a Bela Bartok piece to a Katy Perry pop smash, a heady original blues and three jazz classics spanning swing, cool and modern. There’s a listener-friendly samba, an airy spirit song and an astounding nod to the atonal. Jordan even plays some serious piano on a couple of songs, revisiting his first instrument with newfound confidence and wonder.
Jordan opens Friends with the straight-ahead original Capital J featuring Kenny Garrett on tenor saxophone and Nicholas Payton on trumpet. “So much of the great jazz I grew up with was built on a strong horn line,” Jordan states. “In the spirit of those great classics I wrote this tune. Nick’s tone is fresh and full of life, and he creates interesting, complex improvisations while still leaving plenty of space. Kenny combines a deep musical knowledge with a natural and effortless facility. My favorite part of Capital J was just comping behind the horns.”
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A trip to Bluesville is next with Walkin’ the Dog, which recalls B.B. King but with some edgier things going on around the fringe. Jordan collaborates with groove-master Charlie Hunter on this one. “Our paths have crossed in many jam band situations. We both play multiple parts at once, but he plays more in the lower range while I play more in the higher range, so we complement each other very well.”
Next up is the big band standard Lil’ Darlin’, a gem from the pen of the great Neal Hefti redefined as a quintessential ballad by Count Basie. Together Jordan and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli create a dreamy romantic feel. “Bucky brought that one in and gave us all a history lesson. How precious this moment was, reminding us that we were in the presence of one of the greats who helped create this music we call jazz.”
Jazz rocker Mike Stern emerges next for a mind-blowing spin through the groundbreaking John Coltrane classic Giant Steps. “Mike and I cut our teeth in the same scene in New York in the early ‘80s. Once we jammed together on Giant Steps back in the ‘90s while on tour. He glides through this complex tune with an approach that is so beautiful, natural and musical.”
Jordan really lets the fur fly with his take on pop sensation Katy Perry’s runaway hit I Kissed a Girl on which he plays guitar and piano simultaneously in a second teaming with Charlie Hunter. Jordan—who scored massive hits with covers of Michael Jackson’s The Lady in My Life and The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby—sees this as a vital continuum in both jazz history and his history. “I chose a song from the current generation—a generation moving into a more tolerant and accepting world.”
Samba Delight, featuring Ronnie Laws on soprano saxophone and Regina Carter on violin, puts one in the mind of tropical paradise. “Ronnie is a remarkable and versatile musician who is at the crossroads of many musical worlds,” Jordan explains. “When I showed Ronnie Samba Delight he remarked on how much he liked the tune. It felt really good to hear that because I composed it with him in mind!”
The pendulum swings back to jazz with the super standard Seven Come Eleven, a song made famous in Benny Goodman’s band as a feature for electric jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian. In loving homage, Jordan put himself together with Bucky Pizzarelli and Russell Malone to swing this classic into the rafters. “When I told Bucky I was thinking about doing Seven Come Eleven he just lit up! I love the old time three-way improv we played toward the end. Bucky played a rousing solo and Russell was great as well, providing a cool yet uplifting spirit.”