State of Nature is the first studio offering by Stanley Jordan in over ten years; it also his debut for Detroit's fine Mack Avenue imprint. For those who have only heard the early Blue Note records or his live dates, this will be both welcome and a bit of a shock. Jordan has always been an ambitious artist. He took a long break from recording to study music therapy as well. His pioneering tap technique on the guitar changed the way it is used in jazz and popular music for many, and his holistic approach to music has delighted many and infuriated some purists. Oh well. The 14 tracks here are, as one might expect, all over the map, and so are his support musicians. There are some killer pieces from the jazz canon here, most notably in Horace Silver's "Song for my Father" and Miles Davis' "All Blues." These are likely to get notice because Jordan plays both guitar and piano on them simultaneously with no overdubbing. There will no doubt be some gnashing of teeth because Jordan's not as fine a pianist as Bill Evans or Silver. So what? These are fine renditions of these tunes, performed by a crack band featuring bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer David Haynes (who make up the core rhythm section on the majority of the disc). They swing, they groove, and they remain not only faithful but soulful as well. Haynes' cymbal work on the Silver tune is gorgeous, and Moffett's driving pulse of a bassline on the Davis tune is in the cut and very creative. As for the quality of Jordan's pianism? It works beautifully, and his guitar solos on both cuts add breadth and dimension to the originals. It's actually dazzling on "Song for My Father." These are but two of the many surprises to be found here. The reading of Tom Jobim's "Insensatez" with bassist Dudu Lima and drummer Ivan Conti evokes the sparseness of the original -- even with the multiple tonalities at work in Jordan's playing (many of them bluesy and rounded) combined with Lima's wildly creative, fretless bass playing -- and still manages to hold a drop-dead precise groove for the percussive invention that engages Jordan in his interaction with Conti. This is a beautiful if very unusual interpretation of the tune that probably adds more to its timeless appeal than any cover of it in recent memory.
Jordan's own compositions have not suffered in his time away from recording; far from it. Check album opener "A Place in Space" with the Moffett and Haynes rhythm section. The colors on display here are rich, even lush, and if the tune didn't pop the way it does rhythmically or have its force of swing -- even in rather staccato interludes -- it might be a tad lush. But it moves and the breaks by Haynes, while never overstated (he's using brushes) are simply intoxicating. There are a number of brief "environmental" recordings here, as well, underscoring the artist's deep concern with the personal transformation of self and nature (yeah; green politics) but it's a spiritual type of politics, not a brow-beating one. "Ocean Breeze" was written with Jay Kishor, who also plays sitar in a large ensemble setting. The Jordan-Moffett-Haynes trio is embellished by keyboards (Giovanna Imbesi), a second bassist in Tommy Brown, and various hand percussion and tablas. While the track has a bit of a new-agey feel in the first couple of seconds, it quickly becomes something akin to what Oregon did in the early '70s but with an electric guitar. The melodic invention in this cut is simply amazing. Another remarkable moment is the exchange of solos between Jordan and Kishor, followed by Tammi Brown's understated, wordless vocals in the backdrop. The funky breaks played by Haynes in "Shadow Dance" are supplemented by hip drum loops added by Jordan. He takes his most rockist solo here (feels like a nod to Hendrix); it spirals out into space with pedal effects and some keyboard programming and overdubbed piano, and it's an excellent fusion track which has enough funk and soul in it to create a killer groove. The album closes with a beautiful version of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out." A backing chorus of Tammi Brown and Julianne Jordan is accompanied by Jordan on electric piano, guitar, and loops, and the rhythm section of Moffett and Haynes. It swings and shimmers and stays deeply in the cut while letting its groove and dancefloor freak flag fly -- expect this one to be a hit on contemporary jazz stations even at almost six minutes. There is some additional recording at the end with environmental sounds, Meta Weiss' cello and Kishor's sitar fading in as the guitar solos and vocals fade out. In lesser hands this cut and perhaps an album this ambitious in scope would have been a mess. In Jordan's it is nothing short of a triumph of soul, spirit, and a seasoned jazz musician's acumen.