I got the chance to interview American jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan for Scenestr ahead of his first Australian tour. I also got permission from his agent to do an interview for myself, which I recorded on Zoom. I cannot believe how kind and generous Mr Jordan was! He talked about all the things I wanted to know; about his touch tapping technique, his thoughts and his approach to music (my God, he really gave me all that!)
I was so happy, but in my naivety, I was still surprised that the phone rang after half an hour and he had to go. What? Stanley Jordan doesn’t have two hours to shoot the breeze with me? Seriously though. I am over the moon about this interview.
I have edited the transcription carefully, for readability. But I urge you to watch the video, because Mr Jordan’s voice and words are so gentle and expressive, like much of his music. I’ve included a couple of links to YouTube videos, within the transcript.
JF: The legendary American jazz guitarist standard Jordan is about to do his first Australian tour. So we’ve talked a little bit about that and about his music.
So you’re coming to Australia for the first time?
SJ: in August. I’m really looking forward to it.
JF: August 4 in Adelaide, Melbourne on the 5th and 6th and Sydney on the 7th of August. It’s a solo tour?
SJ: Yes, that’s right. I’ve played in a lot of different formats, but solo is really my main thing.
It’s the core of what I do. So I like that I’m doing it as a solo tour for my first tour. I think it’s a good opportunity for me to feel close to the audience and for people to hear what’s truly the soul of my music.
JF: You have something very special that you do. You’re going to see a new audience in Australia. Can you talk a bit about your touch tapping technique?
SJ: So piano was actually my first instrument, and I went through a period of a few years when I didn’t have access to a piano. That’s when I started playing guitar and I just absolutely loved it.
I knew that guitar was my main instrument, but after a few years of playing guitar, I started to miss some of the musical possibilities of the piano. As I progressed in school, I had access to a piano again, and I started playing again at school. I realized that I still really liked some of the things that the piano can do, but I liked the expressiveness of the guitar.
I feel like the guitar is such a personal instrument. When you’re touching the string, it’s just from your physical body to the string, and there’s more of a connection. So I feel the sound is more personal and I feel that the guitar is more expressive. But the piano allows you to do so many different things at once — the independence of the different lines and the fullness of the chords.
So I started experimenting to figure out a way to bring some of that to the guitar. I know some people have said it kind of resembles a piano, and that was definitely intentional, and it’s really exciting.
Even after all these years, it just blows my mind the doors that have opened musically. You have that expressiveness of the guitar and the textural possibilities of the piano, but they’re brought together in a way that makes it almost like a new instrument. I mean, it’s definitely guitar, but the musical possibilities are so different that it really is musically like a different territory.
JF: Do you still do this routine where you go to a place and walk around the venue to get a feeling of how that’s going to be for the night?
SJ: Yes, absolutely. To me, music is so much more than just the structure and the sound. I mean, I love talking about music theory and the structure of music. It’s great stuff. But there’s an essence to music that goes beyond that, that you can’t really explain.
What is so wonderful for me is being able to tap into that. I do find that it’s a healing experience, and I also find that it’s a sort of growth experience. I know we use the word healing a lot, which implies that there was maybe some prior state where we were healthy, and we somehow fell from grace, and we’re trying to get back to it. But I think there’s also an element where music helps us to develop.
To give you an example, man, I wish I had my guitar with me right now! So for example, in dynamics in music, we’ve got these terms for different levels. So we’ve got the mezzo forte and the next level up from there is a forte, but how many levels are there in between? And especially with the instrument that I play now, my Vigier Arpege, it’s such an accurate instrument. What I’ve found is that I can dial in these different levels and every level has a whole, unique sound and personality.
What happens is, if I can tune myself in, to really be able to get to these really subtle levels, I feel that it helps my audience also to become more sensitive.
You know, in life we’re all bombarded with so much stimuli; we’ve got noise pollution, we’ve got electromagnetic fields in the environment. Even the temperature’s going up. I think it’s easy to lose touch with the quiet and the inner space and I find, especially with my solo show, that it’s a sort of celebration of that.
Hopefully, if people have anything like the experience that I have when I’m playing, it’s actually a way of experiencing your life more fully.
I don’t know how else to say it. You know, it’s hard to put it into words, but there’s definitely an element of growth involved.
JF: I guess in a solo show, you won’t need a set list?
SJ: I sometimes have a set list, but not all the time. But you know, even when I have a set list, I don’t always follow it because I really try to be sensitive to that moment and the environment, when I’m playing.
So for example, sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll start the concert without any thought of any particular song, and I’ll just start playing. In that way, I feel like the audience, and the energy they bring contributes to the direction of the music. Then it grows, and it grows, and sometimes it’s a new composition! Other times I might realize, Hey, I know what song this is, and then I’ll go into that song, and I’ll finish the song.
But I love the idea that not only can the artist and the performer craft the music, but the music itself is like a partner, like another conscious entity. At least it feels like that to me. So I can listen to the music, and the music tells me where it wants to go.
Sometimes I feel like it’s almost like somewhere deep in my mind, or deep in the Akashic records or something, there’s a radio station there. If I can find that right channel and dial into that station, then all I have to do is listen and be faithful to what I’m hearing and just sort of translate it!
Sometimes what I’m hearing isn’t even necessarily a sound per se, but it’s more a sort of energy, a flow, or a gesture. Then it’s my job as an artist and using my training as a musician to figure out how to translate that into notes, which makes it different every time.
So for me, it’s always fresh and just being on that creative edge, which can be a little risky sometimes. You know, occasionally I play for a while and I just think this isn’t very good and I lose confidence, you know. But most of the time I’m not even really conscious of it like that.
If I start thinking about how well I’m doing, I immediately fall from the heavens, and it’s just like I’m — boom— back to earth, you know? Then I sort of go (startled) Oh! Then I go back to the music, and it’s just pure bliss again!
JF: That radio station must be fresh all the time because you are growing over the years, and the way you think about the world will change too.
SJ: Yeah, and it’s different everywhere. I think there’s stuff sort of rolling around in my mind. It might be stuff I heard recently, or it could be just my feeling of my state at the time.
I do think that the feeling of the audience plays an important role. You could go into the same venue, on the same evening and play for two different audiences. And it’s just completely different. The feeling is just different. I do feel like being sensitive to that makes for a better show, and also really hearing the sound of the music in the room.
You know, it sounds so simple, but sometimes it’s easier said than done because it takes so much concentration just to play the instrument accurately, especially when I’m using the touch technique. It’s such an accurate technique. So I have to play those strings just right. Or I’ll slip, and I’ll miss.
So, on the one hand, it requires a really, kind of tight focus. But on the other hand, if I get too caught up in the particulars of it, then I’m gonna lose the inspiration.
So my goal is to be really creative, and really freely creative, but when the ideas come, whatever the idea is, I try to play it faithfully.
When I’m really listening to what I’m playing, which is a whole other skill in a sense, then I think it’s a lot better because then I’m able to let the music really guide me. Like I was saying, it takes so much just to play the music that, how do you have any brain cells left to really, really hear what you’re playing?
I’ve found that the key to it is how I prepare. You were asking about that, about how I prepare. If I can get really relaxed, and really dial it in, to where everything is done with the minimum of effort, then it becomes really easy. So the technique side of it becomes so efficient that I have more attention left to just think about where I want the music to go.
So that’s a lot of the key to what I teach my students. I teach a lot, and that’s a real privilege to be able to do that. And that’s one of the main things I tell my students.
JF: You have an album of standards, but they’re not standards as we all used to know standards — they’re not Hoagy Carmichael and Rodgers and Hart — they’re Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and the Beatles.
SJ: Nowadays, that’s not such a big deal. But you know, back then it was. I mean, there were a few precedents. For example, Wes Montgomery did some Beatles, and of course, John Coltrane did “My Favorite Things”. That was a more recent song. But that was rare. For the most part — certainly in jazz — the standard repertory was the Tin Pan Alley and the older songs.
I didn’t really get the memo, you know! I thought you just play songs, you play popular songs and you jazz ’em up. That’s why they call it jazz, you know? Then when I moved to New York and I started going into the professional scene, and I started getting out there and performing a lot more, I found that there was pressure to do the older songs.
At that point for me, there was no turning back. It’s like: Why do I have to just do the older songs? You know, the songs I grew up with actually mean more to me. I have memories of when that song came out and how people understood that song.
I remember one night, I had been tossing and turning a little bit, ‘cause it was bothering me the kind of flak that I was getting! I remember I woke up and felt just a little bit angry and I was like, dammit, these aren’t just some silly pop songs. These are standards. These are my generation’s standards!
So that’s when I got the idea to do the ‘Standards’ album to celebrate the newer music.
JF: When you were young you would have listened to other people’s music more, but do you still practise that now? I mean, do you hear pop music from 2000 onwards and think, Oh I could jazz that up. Like Adele for instance?
SJ: Well in fact, in 2015, Kevin Eubanks and I released our ‘Duets’ album, and we did a song by Adele. There was another song we did — ‘Lights’ by Ellie Golding — which was more in the EDM pop vein. I remember I was on a long drive on my way to meet Kevin to start doing the record and that song came on the radio. It was just so haunting and so beautiful, and I thought, I bet Kevin would like this song. When I showed it to him, he said, “Man, let’s do it.” So we put that on the record.
The thing is, a good song can be interpreted differently. It can be re-interpreted.
That’s part of the way you know it’s a good song. It’s not just an event that happened, but something that’s been added to the culture, and we can work with it and update it. So, I think there’s no end to it. I think that’s part of the key — and this is one of the things that makes it so interesting for me — is that music has so many elements and different dimensions.
So there’s always something that you can find: the kernel, the seed or the heart of a song. If you tap into that and really bring that out, then you can pretty much find something new in any song. You can find value, you know?
Even for some of the songs that are already considered classics, you can find new ways to interpret them. For example, one of the songs I do a lot, I’m sure I’ll be doing this on my tour is the slow movement from Mozart to the end of Concerto No. 21. There’s one part in the melody — technically it’s the augmented 2nd resolving upward to the major 3rd. Well, when I hear that, that to me sounds like blues! So I’ll take those two notes, expand on that, and play a blues lick, but only because Mozart gives me that. I wouldn’t just throw it in.
So finding those moments when I can pull something out like that — and if Mozart were around today, he’d probably be a killer blues player anyway, and he improvised a lot! In fact, he improvised on that particular piece — so taking the liberty and finding those gems is part of the joy of what I do.
JF: You do it with Jimi Hendrix.
SJ: Yes. I do have a show called ‘Stanley plays Jimi’, which maybe someday I’ll come back to Australia and bring that show there. Definitely, that one needs a band. But even when I do my regular solo show, I play some Hendrix material because he was the first guitarist I emulated as a child. So he’s kind of in my musical DNA in a way.
But the Hendrix tribute show is a special thing unto itself because I imagine that I’m Jimi Hendrix. So I’m not Stanley playing Jimi’s music. I’m also playing Jimi as an actor, as well as a musician. So it’s a different kind of show, and I imagine: what would Jimi Hendrix be doing today?
So I try to portray Jimi if he were still playing today, and then try to play what I think he would be doing, which could be a genre unto itself because nobody really knows what he would be doing so there’s a lot of room to be creative. But you have to have a feeling for his music and his sounds. There are certain things that I wouldn’t do because I just don’t think he would be doing that today because it doesn’t feel right. You have to have a feeling for it. So anyway, sometime in the future, I’d like to bring that show as well.
JF: So on a solo tour, you pull from all genres, from classical to bebop to…
SJ: I go from Mozart to Charlie Parker, to Jimi Hendrix, to Katie Perry. I just do all kinds of stuff but try to weave it together.
JF: How about your audience? Would it affect what you might or might not play?
SJ: Yeah. It does have an effect. You know, many musicians don’t want the audience to influence what they do because they feel like it’s selling out or it’s cheating or whatever. I don’t really subscribe to that.
Although I would say…Okay. So there was a great jazz pianist from the San Francisco bay area, Flip Nuñez. I grew up in his tutelage in a way, because he had a weekly jam session and I used to go for years.
I remember one day, somebody hollered out a request that he didn’t feel like playing.
He said, “All right, I heard what you want, but I’m gonna give you what you need.” Then he played a completely different song!
But I love that because I think you can be there for your audience, and part of what that means is giving them your very best. So that doesn’t necessarily mean playing every request. You know, it’s like somebody might request something, but that’s not what I have in me right now. So I shouldn’t play that. I should play what I’m really feeling right now.
But on the other hand, the audience does affect what I’m doing, because I want people to have a wonderful time. So there’s some give and take there. You know, I have an open mind. I have a big enough bag of tricks, so to speak. So it’s interesting for me to figure out what’s going to make for the best experience tonight.
I actually kind of started that way of thinking in my days as a street musician, mostly in New York. Because it wasn’t a prepackaged audience, it was just whoever happened to be coming down Bleecker Street at the time. So I would stand there with my guitar and part of the game I would play was: Let me see if I can figure out something to play that’s gonna make those people stop and come over here and listen to what I’m doing.
It was actually during those days that I really discovered that I like a lot of different styles of music. I started really seeing myself as a multi-style artist, even though jazz is my core and it’s my favorite. But if you ask me what kind of music I play, I just play what I feel at the time, and I love that. I love having that openness.
JF: You talked about your guitar a little earlier. The Arpege?
SJ: So Vigier is the make of the guitar. (The luthier) Patrice Vigier, he’s in Paris, and the model is the Arpege. This Vigier Arpege has been my main guitar since something like 1988 or ’89. I just love the sound of this guitar so much, and I feel so blessed. This guitar and I have been around the world quite a few times — we’ve played in about 70 countries together, and so I’m really, really thrilled to be adding Australia for the first time. It’s been far too many years in coming, so I’m glad to finally be there with my Vigier Arpege.
JF: Did he make it for you?
SJ: Well, he did some customizations, but the wonderful thing about this guitar is he really didn’t have to change much.
One of the things with the touch technique is it requires a really accurate neck because I have to get the strings down really close, the way I play really close to the neck. If you make them too close on a regular guitar, then it doesn’t sound good. They start rubbing, and they start buzzing. So you have to have a guitar that’s so accurate so that you can get that action down.
I see that the phone is ringing. I have another interview that I’m supposed to do now.
JF: You have to go. Okay! Thank you very much!
SJ: Oh, sure. Thank you so much, and I really enjoyed talking with you. Take care. Okay. Bye!
Here is the interview for Scenestr.