ShareEMOTION AND COMMOTION – Jeff Beck (Rhino)
From the moment he supplanted Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds back in 1965, you couldn’t ask for more of a rock guitarist than Jeff Beck. An admirer of Les Paul, rockabilly cats, and Howlin’ Wolf, he was a bona fide innovator, introducing fuzztones, Near Eastern scales, feedback, rude noises and pure emotionalism to the Yardbirds’ rather stiff Brit R&B, and if his very tempestuousness made him an erratic live performer, his recorded solos were perfect little miniatures, perfect for study and theft by a couple of generations of teenage snotnoses like myself.
His supergroup-after-the-fact with Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, and Nicky Hopkins laid the template for Led Zep but more importantly, added a layer of groove and swing to the amped-up blooze everyone and his brother was playing in 1968. Their Truth album remains classic. While less earthshaking, Beck’s subsequent Rough and Ready band revealed the guitarist’s budding talent for melody and admiration for Stevie Wonder, which would attain apotheosis (following the ill-advised blind alley of Beck, Bogert and Appice) in the George Martin-produced Blow By Blow – the album that made all us snotnoses stop and think, “Wow! Now we’ve gotta learn how to play good.” (We were wrong, of course, but nevermind.)
I saw Beck twice on his ’76 tour with ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra member and Tim Conway lookalike Jan Hammer. The first time I was deafened (standing front and center at the Palace Theater in Albany), the next time (first balcony at the Academy of Music in Manhattan) I was astonished by the alchemy. I kind of lost the thread after that, as Jeff spent a few years playing what St. Lester dismissed as “Mahaherbiehancockorea,” although I bought and liked his ’89 Guitar Shop with ex-Zappa drumkit maximalist Terry Bozzio.
I heard from folks that’d seen him over the years that he’d evolved into something approximating a Zen mastery of the electric guitar, shaping every note he played with the whammy bar, rolling up the volume knob for a more vocal attack, employing microtones and harmonics at will – without even using a pick, for chrissakes, since 1980 or so. This was confirmed last year, when I copped his Performing This Week…Live At Ronnie Scott’s DVD. Sure, a lot of the music’s slick fusion funk that isn’t really my bag, but Jeff’s guitaring is ten feet tall and bulletproof throughout.
Because I own said DVD, I didn’t feel compelled to shell out to go catch him at the local shed on his most recent tour – he’s bigger on my TV at home than he’d be on the Jumbotron at that place in Grand Prairie, and I can pause the disc if I need to hit the head – but I was curious enough to preorder his new album. And was more stunned than I’d been the first time I heard “Shapes of Things” by the Yardbirds, "Truth", or "Blow By Blow".
Simply put, this appropriately titled album (with one of the worst cover graphics in recent memory) is pure beauty, with Beck’s estimable technique harnessed in the service of melody. This is hardly the shredfest that the guitar freaks might have been expecting, although he displays that side of his musical personality on “Hammerhead.” One wonders what they’ll make of the lush orchestrations and the presence on roughly half the tracks of three female vocalists: pop star Joss Stone, rockabilly chanteuse Imelda May (who to’ it up with Beck at the Grammy Awards), and opera singer Olivia Safe. These days, Beck’s main collaborator is keyboardist Jason Rebello, featured on the Ronnie Scott’s DVD, who performs the same role (crafting settings for Beck to extemporize over) as did his predecessors Max Middleton and Tony Hymas. Orchestrator Pete Murray also plays an important role.
The guitarist reveals a fondness for expressive voices like Jeff Buckley’s (whose “Corpus Christi Carol” and “Lilac Wine” are covered here) and Safe’s, and his renderings of Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” and Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” (which put me in mind of my recently deceased, opera-loving dad) have the same quality a trained singer would bring to the pieces. There’s no bombast or exhibitionism here; even when Beck burns with bluesy fire on a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” he keeps it tightly reined in and never tries to dominate the music. Which, ironically, only throws his mastery into more brilliant relief. On the closing “Elegy for Dunkirk,” he can bring you to tears with just a handful of notes.
So, a Rawk album this is not. It is, however, a strong case for Beck as the pre-eminent guitarist of his time (in the same way Ornette Coleman is the pre-eminent musician of his time). Sure, Hendrix was the water in which those of us of A Certain Age swam, coming up. But Jeff Beck, bless him, has stuck around long enough to fulfill every ounce of promise he ever showed in his brilliant-but-erratic younger daze. And then some. - Ken Shimamoto
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