Jordan Plays Jimi: An Interview with Stanley Jordan

Photo: Maurice Robertson. Used with permission.

Ace jazz musician Stanley Jordan started out on piano age six, then decided, age eleven, to apply the tapping attack of the keyboard, to guitar. He’s been a professional since 1982, and he’s coming to Jazz Alley October 4-5 for “Stanley Jordan Plays Jimi”—Hendrix, naturally. He was kind enough to take some questions over email.


Seattle Star: What were you what are your earliest recollections of Jimi Hendrix music around you? Which songs, albums, TV appearances, et cetera?

Stanley Jordan: At first I heard the same stuff that pretty much everyone heard, you know, “Purple Haze, “Foxy Lady,” stuff like that. Then when I took up guitar I started going deeper. And I remember the second album I ever bought was Cry of Love. And that album still to this day, is just so meaningful for me. So much of my concept for music, for guitar and the flow of an album–how the songs fit together as a unified work of art.

I remember his appearance on Dick Cavett was really cool. Like, like when Dick Cavett showed Jimi at Woodstock playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He said, “I’m probably going to get hate mail because, you know, people don’t always like it when someone does a traditional song in an unorthodox way.” And Jimi said, “I didn’t think it was unorthodox. I thought it was beautiful.”

And you know, everyone, even all of us in front of the TV, were applauding that. It was an important moment because we all knew it was a protest, but there was also this sincere patriotic element that we could feel as well. Today I have a feeling that Jimi, like most of the rest of us, would be very dismayed at the amount of division that’s happening in our country today. I feel that even in his day his was trying to heal that.

I feel so compelled to do this show in which I’m representing Jimi, the person, the human being and not just the guitarist. And, you know, I think that his impact on society as a whole was just beginning to fully be felt. And it’s just amazing to think what he could have done, what a talent and what a blessing and a national treasure, right?

Seattle Star: You were 11 years old when Jimi passed. Do you have any distinct memories of the news and your feeling at the time?

Stanley Jordan: Yes, I remember exactly where I was when I found out. It was in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. I was reading magazines and in one article they lamented the loss of some great icons in rock music. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were two of the people they mentioned. And I just remember the shock and just the “oh shit” kind of a feeling, you know?

I was a piano player at the time but I was already interested in playing guitar, and this was the moment that I made up my mind. OK, I’m going to do this for sure, because we have to do what we can to continue Jimi’s legacy.

Seattle Star: How have your attitudes towards his music grown and changed over the years?

Stanley Jordan: In the beginning I went through this phase where I was really sort of more like emulating Jimi. I can show you a picture from when I was 12, where you could see that this show has been destined to happen for quite a long time! Jimi was my favorite music hero, though not the only one.

Stanley Jordan Plays Jimi, 1972 version. Courtesy of Stanley Jordan.

Anyway, then I quickly grew out of that, because I started to notice the directions that Jimi was pointing at, the things he was working on. I wanted to follow up on some of those things. And in particular, I started to notice more of a jazz vibe in his music. He started moving away from the song form just like a lot of jazz people were doing at the time. Sort of like Muddy Waters meets John Coltrane.

As a young teenager and I immersed myself in the Bay Area avant-garde jazz scene. I saw McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard, Prince Lasha, the Charles Moffett family, all these people who were really pushing the boundaries of music. In this phase I was doing much more jazz than than anything else, but still inspired by Jimi.

For example, my touch technique on guitar was influenced by Jimi Hendrix. He showed that the instrument is something personal, that you can make it your own and play it your own way.

I took that forward with me into the jazz world, even as I was challenging some of the orthodoxy that jazz had moved into. I just kept mixing it up. I’ve just sort of always done that, you know? And then I guess over the years, the blues element started to resurface more and more–it just sort of happened organically and that led me back into rock, into rediscovering Hendrix’ music again.

I don’t think really my attitude about his music has changed so much, but I think that my approach to his music has changed because and just really recently, you know, within the last few years, I got this idea to do these sort of fantasy updates of his music, you know, and so it’s an opportunity to do a tribute to him. But at the same time, not be stuck, feeling the need to imitate all of his techniques and his repertoire and everything, but just sort of taking some creative liberty with it and trying to recreate that sense, that feeling of what people must have experienced seeing Jimi.

I never saw him play live, but people have described the experience to me. To try to recreate that same magic you can’t do it by just imitating his techniques because those techniques were only new then. The only way to recreate that same feeling is to do something new today. Something cutting edge. That’s what I love about this project. This show opens the door to exactly the kind of creativity that I’m talking about.

The New Band of Gypsies. Stanley Jordan, guitar. Kenwood Dennard on drums. Not pictured: bassist Gary Kelly.

Seattle Star: How did, or how do your long-running style and the Hendrix style overlap, if at all?

Stanley Jordan: If we’re talking about the musical style, there’s always been some overlap because Jimi’s influence has always been there. It just varied in terms of the percentage, you know?

And I also think we can interpret that word “style” in a more general way. Not just the style of how the notes fit together, but also my performing style has always been influenced by Jimi. And even when I was doing jazz, you know, just pure jazz, Charnett Moffett and I were jumping off stages–him with his acoustic bass. We just never stopped doing that kind of stuff.

Charnett was influenced by Verdine White and of course, Jimi Hendrix as well. So it wasn’t a big deal for him either. There’s a long tradition of showmanship in African American music, including in jazz. But Jimi took it to another level.

Photo: Maurice Robertson

Seattle Star: How did you go about selecting which songs to include in your Hendrix set? Which specific qualities do you look for in the songs?

Stanley Jordan: First of all we include some of his most popular songs. I do believe that that Jimi would have kept those classics in his repertoire. Also we include some of his lesser known songs like “1983… (A Merman I Shall Turn to Be)”. It’s one of my favorites. We might also do some stuff from the Band of Gypsies album. We don’t have like an exact set list–it’s more like a song book. So it will vary from show to show.

We also know that he would be doing some completely new things today. So we always try to do something new–often jams that can go anywhere. So far I’m not going super far into that direction because I want to get a solid handle on the continuity of Jimi’s legacy, and making sure the show is more about him than about me.  But of course, you know, as the show develops we’re going to build on that.

Seattle Star: I’ve long admired Hendrix’s voice, which I find warm, distinct, and full of humor. What were your thoughts on his singing as you work through your own vocal parts for the songs?

Stanley Jordan: Maybe it’s partly because I grew up singing his songs, but I feel that my natural voice is kind of similar to his. So I feel that singing his songs comes really naturally for me, but I don’t try to imitate every little inflection.

I also believe that with age and experience his voice would have developed more depth and power, so I try to imagine that today. For example, on “Hey Joe,” there’s a really powerful line where he says, “Ain’t no hangman, gonna put a rope around me!”, and I really try to come from the gut on that line.

Seattle Star: What were the most challenging things about working up the Hendrix repertoire and how did you work through the what?

Stanley Jordan: One of the most challenging things for me has been the vocals. I’ve already been singing in all of my shows for over 10 years, but now I’m singing on almost every song. At one of our first shows, last year, I had a horrible cough and laryngitis. I didn’t have a backup plan, so I just took to the stage and we did the show. I did much better than I expected– you know, we do what we have to do.

Seattle Star: Were there any songs that you worked on but decided not to include, if so, which and why?

Stanley Jordan: No, there haven’t been any that we’ve decided not to include there. There are just songs that aren’t ready yet, but even between now and showtime, some of them might be coming ready. It’s in a state of flux for sure.

Seattle Star: Which are your all time favorite Hendrix songs and albums, and why?

Stanley Jordan: I would say overall, probably Electric Ladyland would have to be the the number one for me. That was when Jimi really sort of came into his power and was able to do the long form album his way.

Seattle Star: Some folks pick Hendrix for the all-time greatest guitarist. Some don’t. Your thoughts on the on the subject?

Stanley Jordan: Well, you know, greatness can be measured in different ways. For example, I’d use different criteria for Andres Segovia than for Jimi Hendrix. Jimi was definitely my overall favorite. And certainly on the rock side of things, I would say the greatest.

Seattle Star: What’s up the road for you after the Hendrix tour? I know you’ve got at least one unreleased album in the wings.

Stanley Jordan: Yeah. So I recorded an album called Feather in the Wind, which I’m really excited about that. It’s my favorite to listen to out of all my albums. Most likely we can look for that in February of 2022.

And I’m also doing some software development. Some of that is in the field of sonification, where we take data such as scientific measurements and we render it as sound or music, allowing our brains to process that data in novel and hopefully useful ways. I’m talking to a some companies to find the best way to get this released so people can make use of it.

Also I am developing an online school “Integral Arts Academy.” That’s actually my main focus these days. For many years I’ve cultivated this idea that music is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the whole world. One of my main aims through my Integral Arts Academy is to pass on the insights from a lifetime of viewing music and the arts as a lens for understanding the world.

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