For the past four decades, Jeff Beck has led something of a divided professional existence.
To many, he is the pioneering guitarist who has forged wildly original voices as an instrumentalist in rock, swing, fusion and funk. To others, he is a rock 'n' roll hermit, an artist who emerges from seclusion to test the musical waters about him. He tours, records and then disappears again — sometimes for years at a time.
For this double member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (he was inducted as a member of The Yardbirds in 1992 and again as a solo artist in 2009), both personas work hand in hand. If he vanishes from public view, it's only to work on a new sound, style or concept to keep his more visible performance persona vital.
"I like to think I am always evolving as a guitarist and pushing and challenging myself in everything I do," said Beck, 66, who performs in Kentucky for the first time in nearly a decade with a concert Tuesday at the Louisville Palace.
"If all my music was in the same style and format, it wouldn't keep people guessing as to what I am going to do next. I take time off because I want to feel excited about the music I am making. And right now I am very excited."
Judging by his fruitfulness over the past year, Beck has every right to be excited. There has been the release of Emotion and Commotion (his first album of new music since 2003), a guest shot on Herbie Hancock's all-star summit The Imagine Project, a concert recording that spotlights his current touring band (Live and Exclusive From the Grammy Museum) and a jubilant tribute performance to guitar pal and innovator Les Paul that yielded yet another album (Rock 'n' Roll Party).
There also was the no small matter of Beck's triple win at this year's Grammy Awards. He won two trophies for Emotion and Commotion and a third for the Hancock project.
Taking precedence this spring, though, has been a tour supporting Rock 'n' Roll Party. The trek was a major departure for Beck, because it was built around music popularized by Paul during the '40s and '50s.
"This tour was very different from anything I normally do, as I wasn't playing with my own band," Beck said. "So I was a bit apprehensive before it started.
"The main thing I wanted to achieve was to get the power, genius and the simplicity of Les' music, and the music of that era, across to the audience. I think we managed to do that and put a smile on people's faces."
Beck has long been vocal in citing Paul (who died in 2009 at age 94) as an influence and friend. But what did the guitar giant think of Beck's music?
"Les definitely made me sweat when I played in front of him," Beck said. "The first time Les watched me play, I was doing a gig at Avery Fisher Hall in New York with (fellow guitar star) John McLaughlin. Someone told me Les was in the audience, but I wasn't sure he would stick around to see me, as I was playing after John. To my surprise, he was standing in the wings when I came off stage.
"He told me that we were good and to carry on with what we were doing. Then he left. Les used to tease me about playing a Fender constantly, but that was purely because he was a Gibson man."
Beck's Louisville concert will put the focus back on his own band and the music from Emotion and Commotion — a recording that mixed orchestral collaborations (a fittingly grand treatment of Puccini's Nessun Dorma), pop classics (an elegiac guitar treatment of Over the Rainbow), ferocious rock works (Hammerhead) and tunes that enlisted the talents of three stylistically different vocalists (May, British soul belter Joss Stone and young opera stylist Olivia Safe).
"Some might say Emotion and Commotion was a risky album, as it is different to what I normally do," Beck said. "It was also my first studio album in seven years. But it has paid off. I always wanted to make an album with a full orchestra, a classical album with a twist, and I think I managed to get that across."
The tour that brings Beck back to Kentucky strikes an unexpected balance of old and new. The repertoire will spotlight songs from Emotion and Commotion, but his band will include a longtime studio ally, drummer/producer Narada Michael Walden. Although Walden was a key player on Beck's 1976 jazz fusion-based album Wired, he was never part of the guitarist's touring band until last year.
"When I first called Narada in 2009, he told me he had been waiting for the call (to tour) for 30 years. He is a powerhouse, with the most incredible energy on and offstage."
Does such a fruitful recording and performance year mean that Beck is about to go into hiding again? The guitarist isn't saying, mostly because he doesn't chart his career beyond making room for the artistic opportunities that come his way.
"I don't think anyone can envision what is going to happen in the future. But you can hope for certain things. I still can't believe some of the successes and opportunities life has given me. And for that, I am very grateful — especially since I never followed certain paths in my career and didn't conform to the musician people wanted me to be."