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.”
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.”
Bathed in Light is an original that Jordan calls this album’s “spirit song.” It brings back Garrett and Payton on horns, and the always empathetic Christian McBride on bass in a softer turn than the swinging opener Capital J. “This was our first chance to play together,” Jordan says of McBride, “a dream come true because I have admired his playing for many years. He was very sensitive as he adjusted his approach to each song, playing just the right part at all times.” On the inspiration behind the music and title, Jordan muses, “The splashy guitar chords bring out the meaning of the title. Sometimes when we’re bogged down in the details of things, we get depressed. But when we put things into proper perspective, the clouds part and we see a rainbow. I was having one of those moments when I wrote this song.” Mirroring the Zen of all this, Kenwood Dennard played live drums and keyboards simultaneously.
With boundless beauty, Friends moves into the home stretch with two creative renditions of classical themes. The first is Romantic Intermezzo, based on the theme of the fourth movement of Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. This deeply stirring piece features Regina Carter on violin and Stanley, this time exclusively on piano, in his most virtuosic recording on the instrument to date. “Though most of my training is on guitar, I have a strong connection to the piano. I started at the age of three, so playing piano is natural for me, but I had to get out of the mental grid that I’m a ‘guitar player’—a major liberation for me.” Reflecting on working with the violin virtuoso, Jordan says, “Regina Carter is an amazing violinist who combines my favorite elements from the jazz side and the classical side. Doing improvisations of ‘classical’ compositions often means spelling out more than just chord symbols. In this case, I wrote out many of the voicings I was using so we could improvise in a cohesive way. The result was a dense page of notes, which was probably a lot to drop on Regina at the last minute, but she rose to the occasion admirably. The sensitivity of her playing is exquisite.”
A take on Claude Debussy’s Reverie in a jazz context features Jordan and his road trio of Charnett Moffett on bass and Kenwood Dennard on drums. The group has been performing this for many years, which explains the fluid ease with which they weave through it. “We pretty much stuck to the form on this one except for a brief modal improv which was obviously not written into the original composition,” Jordan states, “but I feel that it gets across the meaning and spirit of the song.”
Friends closes on an ear-turning note with One for Milton, a heartfelt yet adventurous tribute to one of Jordan’s most beloved music teachers, composer Milton Babbit (1916-2011), who passed away as Jordan was preparing to record Friends. “I studied theory and composition with Milton at Princeton in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He was a giant in his field and he left a big impression on me—musically and personally. In Eastern spiritual traditions a guru is someone whose very presence confers enlightenment. Milton truly fit this description. Russell, Kenwood and I created this from scratch as an improvisation. I’ve always been a fan of Russell’s more experimental side, and it got a great showing on this recording. We didn’t try to imitate Milton’s style, but in the spirit of his music we did take an atonal approach. If anything, there are parts that sound a bit like Milton’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg.”
Reflecting on the wealth of music inspired by collaborating with chosen peers on Friends, Stanley Jordan concludes, “I am so humbled and grateful to all of the wonderful musicians who graced this project. This collection truly speaks to my belief in the integrationist spirit of music. I’d like to move beyond ‘fusion’ and explore the concept of ‘integration.’ When you integrate styles, you combine them into something new while still remaining true to the original sources. The same principal holds for our friendships, which require mutual respect. Our friends are a mirror revealing the diversity within us, and at the same time they give us the courage to share our true selves with the world.”