A CONVERSATION WITH JAZZ GUITAR INNOVATOR STANLEY JORDAN

Stanley Jordan at Blue Note Napa, 2017. Photo: Mitchell Glotzer

Since his 1985 breakout album, “Magic Touch,” Stanley Jordan has been regarded as one of the premier jazz guitarists in the world. Playing across multiple genres, the four-time Grammy nominee employs a unique approach to his instrument, a technique that creates layers of music played simultaneously across the neck of his guitar.

At Blue Note Napa, Jordan, along with bassist Charnett Moffet and drummer Chris Wabich, dazzled a full house with a set of mostly progressive jazz, but with doses of Mozart, pop, rock and something called “A Place in Space,” which the guitarist, quite accurately, introduced as “out there.”

Jordan capped the performance with a glittering, inventive interpretation of “Stairway to Heaven,” which brought the jazz audience to its feet. I believe that Jimmy Page would have approved.

On the phone from Washington, D.C. a month earlier, Jordan talked about how being a pianist first, beginning at age 6, dramatically influenced how he would eventually create the “touch technique,” or two-handed “tapping,” that would distinguish his guitar-playing.

“My first instrument was piano,” Jordan said. “We went through a time when we had some difficulties with finances and we didn’t have a piano. That was when I started playing guitar. After a few years, I knew that guitar was my favorite instrument, but I started to miss some of the possibilities of the piano.

“I remember when I was like 13, I had this image in my mind. I saw myself playing with both hands flying all around the neck in both directions, and with all this music just spilling out of the guitar. It was sort of a piano way of thinking that was already implanted in my brain.”

Instead of playing the guitar conventionally — picking or strumming with the right hand while forming notes or chords on the neck with the left hand – Jordan does something else entirely. He taps with the fingers of both hands on the neck of the guitar, the way that a pianist would press or tap on the keys of a piano. The result is his extraordinary agility at fusing combinations of melody and harmony and bass and rhythm, not as trickery but in service of the music.

Over the past three decades, Jordan has recorded 14 studio albums, appeared as a sideman with a who’s who of other artists, toured worldwide, including an array of jazz festivals, and made his share of appearances with jam bands including The Dave Matthews Band, The String Cheese Incident and Phil Lesh. His most recent album is 2015’s “Duets,” a collaboration with Kevin Eubanks.

For many years, Princeton-educated Jordan has had a serious interest in the therapeutic potential of music “When I was younger,” he said, “I had a couple of experiences with the healing power of music. I was always interested in health and healing. We each have different callings and I think one of mine is to be in the health field. I was looking for ways to use music to kind of help people, not just with healing, but with growth and evolution.

“I had no idea that there was a profession, that there was sophisticated research behind it. And then one day, right before a show, I met a music therapist who sent me a big stack of scientific studies. I was really impressed with the quantity and quality of the research.

Long term, Jordan is serious about an alternative path in music therapy. He has attended courses and conferences conducted by the American Music Therapy Association, accrued hours toward a master’s degree in the field and serves as an advocate and spokesperson for the organization.

“Right now, because of my touring schedule, I’m not actively in the program,” he said, “but I do continue to do independent study. I do want to finish my Master’s, you know, get certified and all that. We’ll see where it goes, but right now, I’m still involved in different ways.”

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