Stanley Jordan stands out as a pioneering jazz musician. He is the creator of the guitar fretboard tapping technique. His technique allows him to play the guitar and the piano simultaneously. He shall be performing at the Jazz Yatra this year to be held on 19 February in Delhi. 

Q. Stanley, your childhood was spent around the piano but then you moved onto the guitar. What brought about this change?

A. First I played classical piano and composed on the piano. Then my family went through some difficult times and my parents had to sell the piano. I then started playing the guitar at the age of 11 and it became my favourite instrument. The thing I loved about the piano was the rich musical textures and complex melodic counterpoints. But I found the guitar more expressive — probably because you are actually touching the strings. So I developed my touch technique as a way to combine the orchestral possibilities of the piano with the expressiveness of the guitar. One side benefit of that technique is that it allows me to play the guitar with one hand, so I can play piano with my other hand. I do this not as a trick or a gimmick, but as a way of expanding my tonal palette.

Q. Jazz has always had a complex meaning for general listeners who lack understanding yet sensuously respond to the sounds. Could you explain jazz to us?

A. Often people can appreciate a musical style more if they know what to listen for. In jazz, an improvisor creates variations on a theme, so if you know the original song you can appreciate what the artist is doing with it. Part of the excitement is witnessing the spontaneity and creativity. Most jazz musicians like it when you respond vocally by shouting your appreciation of special moments. In that way they feel that you are with them and really listening and they learn what moves you. In this way the listener is part of the creative process. Many jazz musicians have a unique musical personality, which they bring to every song they play. When jazz ensembles improvise, there is a communication between the members — it’s like a musical conversation. Also jazz musicians often explore unique combinations of notes, which can be very stimulating and edifying for the mind and heart.

Q. Your works involve many rock and pop works which you’ve mastered and reproduced in your own way. Has there been criticism of this move away from jazz purism?

A. Yes, I’ve been criticised by both jazz and rock purists! But I feel that the purists play an important role because great traditions need to be kept alive. Now please pardon me for getting all geeky on you but I think this is relevant: In 1930, Kurt Gödel published his Incompleteness Theorem which was based in mathematical philosophy but I think it’s relevant to music. It says that you can be consistent or complete but not both. Purists want consistency but to achieve that they sacrifice completeness, which is fine as long as everyone understands this. So all their rules are fine within one genre, but just don’t try to apply them to all music.

Q. How has your study of theory been a part of your growth as an artist?

A. I’m endlessly fascinated by the study of music. Music seems to me to be a microcosm of the whole universe. Music theory is really amazing. I like to take complex music-theoretical concepts and explain them in everyday language to non-musicians. They always find it fascinating. This is because, once you get past the jargon, many of the principles relate to life in general.

Q. When was it and how was it that you came about with your style of fretboard tapping, which even gets your chin involved while tapping the E minor? How do you involve the melody, the chorus and the bass etc. all into one space?

A. With the touch technique I play by tapping the strings against the frets on the guitar’s neck, which allows me to play with one hand. In this way I can use my two hands independently to play a greater variety of parts. But sometimes my fingers are all busy and I need one more note, so I’ll play that with my chin if I have to. When I’m inspired I’m committed to realising the inspiration and I’ll pretty much do whatever it takes.

“I’m endlessly fascinated by the study of music. Music seems to be a microcosm of the whole universe. Music theory is really amazing. I like to take complex music-theoretical concepts and explain them in everyday language to non-musicians. They always find it fascinating. This is because, once you get past the jargon, many of the principles relate to life in general.”

Q. You’ve remarked that the piano is a freer space in making music with chords, as compared to the guitar. How did you overcome the limits of the guitar?

A. My touch technique has brought a lot of the piano’s possibilities to the guitar but there are still advantages to the piano. For one thing, piano keys are so wide that they’re hard to miss, so you are less prone to making mistakes. On guitar, the requirements are more precise.  Also chord fingering is simpler on the piano because the notes lie pretty much in a straight line. But guitar chords are complex two-dimensional shapes that sometimes twist your fingers into a pretzel. On the piano you can easily change one note within a chord, but on the guitar you may have to re-finger the whole chord just to change one note! For this reason, guitarists need to memorise chords in advance, whereas on the piano it’s easier to construct them right on the spot, as needed. That said, the guitar has advantages as well. Once you learn something on the guitar, it’s easy to transpose it to other keys just by sliding it up and down the fretboard. This is even easier for me because I use a tuning called P4 where the intervals from string to string are all the same, which is simpler than the standard guitar tuning. So I can move things not only up and down the neck but also across from string to string and the patterns remain the same.

Q. How do you feel about performing in India at the upcoming Jazz Yatra?

A.  I’m really looking forward to it. I can see online that there is a huge buzz around this festival. I hope to bring something memorable to the audiences and I look forward to hearing the other artists.

Q. Which artists and genres have influenced and nurtured you?

A. That is a big question because my influences are so broad. As a child, I played the piano and composed in a sort of late-romantic style. My influences included Prokofiev and Wagner. At age 11 I took up the guitar and was listening to a lot of B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. At around 12-13, I started getting into playing jazz. My influences included Miles Davis, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine and Herbie Hancock.  The nice thing about jazz is that it integrated my favourite elements from classical, rock and blues. I feel that the classical music of India is one of the greatest traditions in the history of music, and I find that it blends well with jazz. I explored this in a recording of ragas with two Indian musicians — Jay Kishor on sitar and Vedang Londhe on the tabla.

Q. Tell us about the Jazz festivals that you’ve been to and were impressed by?

A. I feel very blessed to have played in many music festivals around the world including Womad in South Africa, the Northsea Festival in the Netherlands, and the Kool Jazz Festival in the USA. The Telluride Jazz Festival is very special. It’s nestled in the majestic mountains of Colorado and the view is absolutely breathtaking. The Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans is huge and there is so much great music going on it’s almost overwhelming.

Q. Lastly, what do you expect jazz to be like in times to come? How do you see the growth taking place, and in what areas?

A.  Jazz has always been in a creative flux, partly because it combines so well with other genres. For example, Dizzy Gillespie’s collaborations with percussion sensation Chano Pozo ushered in a whole movement of Afro-Cuban jazz. And in the ’60s American jazz artists embraced Brazilian bossa nova, and that marriage continues today. Then you have “third stream”, which combines jazz with modern Western classical music. There is still so much to explore. In my own work I combine jazz with classical, rock, electronica and all kinds of world music. The state of jazz education is strong today so there are a lot of good young musicians coming up. I’m hopeful because I see that the future is bright.

 

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