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STANLEY JORDAN'S GUITAR MASTERY : Search for 'Something' Has Made This Innovator the King of the Tappers

October 11, 1987|DON HECKMAN

He sits huddled alone in the center of the stage, a solo guitarist at work. But something is odd, unusual. Both his hands are wrapped around the neck of his instrument, and all 10 of his fingers are moving independently across the strings, producing a sound so rich and complex that it has audiences peering into the darkness to look for nonexistent accompanists.

He's not the only one doing it, but Stanley Jordan, 28, is certainly the best known of the guitar "tappers" developing a dramatic new way of manipulating one of music's oldest instruments. Tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, he will display this remarkable new technique in a recital ranging from jazz originals to pop classics and spontaneous improvisations.

Earlier this week, in a telephone conversation from the New York City SoHo loft where he was rehearsing, Jordan recalled his discovery of tapping (as opposed to plucking) his guitar strings to produce notes.

"It wasn't really a sudden, or even an accidental thing," he said. "It was definitely something I was searching for. I didn't know what it was that I was searching for, but I knew I wanted to be able to play two or three lines at the same time--to sound like two or three guitars, simultaneously."

Classically trained, with a bachelor of arts degree in music from Princeton and extensive study as a pianist, Jordan loved the guitar but felt frustrated by its apparent inability to provide the range of independent sounds available to him at the piano keyboard.

"I've loved classical music ever since I was a kid," he said, "and that was the influence--the sound--that I had in mind when I played guitar. I really wanted to hear all that counterpoint, with all kinds of independent lines weaving around each other.

"Now it's true that you can get that kind of independence by playing guitar in traditional fashion, but there are definite limits. So I knew that the only way I could approach the kind of freedom I had on piano was by playing guitar with two hands, instead of one, producing the notes."

The dilemma was how to do it. Traditional guitar technique calls for one hand to stop the strings, while the other sets them in vibration. While occasional players--Emmett Chapman, Adrian Belew and Eddie Van Halen, most recently--have tried different methods, Jordan was unaware of their efforts.

"I tried everything I could think of," he said. "Playing with a pick, playing with my fingers, playing all sorts of fancy harmonics and regular notes at the same time. But nothing seemed to give me the musical freedom I wanted."

"Then, I slowly realized that if I just tapped the strings, I could play notes with only one hand. It seemed like an answer. But making it work was something else."

The problem, Jordan soon realized, was that the guitar itself had not evolved as a tool for this kind of playing style. "So the next step," he said, "was getting the guitar set up correctly, placing the strings very close to the neck to make it easier to generate the sounds with just a light tap on the strings."

Once the puzzle of the mechanics was solved, Jordan's music blossomed. In 1982, he recorded his first album ("Touch Sensitive") for his own label, Tangent Records. An unannounced appearance at New York's Kool Jazz Festival in 1984 startled the jazz audience and generated a storm of superlative press notices.

"Jordan's short solo set," raved the New York Post, "should have scared every guitarist in town."

The Blue Note album ("Magic Touch") which followed the festival appearance was a smash success, logging 51 weeks at the top of Billboard's jazz chart listings and earning Jordan a pair of Grammy Awards.

Jordan's current recording ("Standards, Volume I," Blue Note), released last December, provides the guitarist with his first crack at a set of familiar pop songs; the program ranges from Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind" to Paul Simon's "The Sounds of Silence." It, too, has been a consistent chart performer.

Earlier this year, Jordan appeared in his first film role, as a guitarist friend of Bruce Willis in the Blake Edwards feature, "Blind Date."

"I really enjoyed it," he said. "The scene is at the point in the film where the characters really start falling for each other." Jordan's unaccompanied solo underlines and punctuates the key scene.

This sudden, rocketing success seems to have had little effect upon Jordan's quiet, soft-spoken style. As precise and articulate in his explanation of his music as he is in its performance, he is careful not to confuse method with message.

"Obviously, the technique is a central part of my playing," he said, "and I do want people to leave the concert thinking they've heard a good musician.

"But, more importantly," he said, "I'm concerned with communication. I want my music to make people feel something they can take home with them, some kind of emotion or inspiration that will carry over into their daily lives.

"Because what makes me feel best is not having someone say, 'Hey, man, you were great,' but having them say, 'Your music really affected me in a good way.' That's about as much as any performer can ask for, no matter what technique they use."

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