The trio: Can there be a more elemental or established musical configuration? Sure, the possibilities of what it can create are boundless. But in the end, what results is music created by three artists on three instruments. Leave it to Stanley Jordan, however, to rattle those boundaries.
The guitarist long ago introduced a revolutionary technique that involved tapping notes on the instrument's fretboard to mimic the melodies and harmonies of two or three players. In essence, he can sound like a trio and be the only musician onstage.
The technique is practically old hat for Jordan these days. Back in 1985, when his Blue Note debut album, Magic Touch, surfaced, his one-man band guitar sound made him a jazz celebrity. But 26 years later, he has found an even more daring variation of the musical trio. He has developed a technique that allows him to play guitar and piano simultaneously.
"I get asked about that a lot," said Jordan, who plays a trio performance — an old-fashioned trio — with bassist Paul Keller and drummer Kenwood Dennard on Saturday at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. "If I'm doing a show with bass and drums and I'm playing guitar and piano, people go, 'What is that — a trio or a quartet?' The answer is it is definitely a trio. In my mind, I'm one person playing one instrument.
"Piano was actually my first instrument, and the touch technique I developed on guitar was very much inspired by piano. I wanted to do pianistic orchestrations on the guitar. And right from the beginning, I realized it was possible to play the two instruments at the same time. But I worked more on developing the technique for guitar. It wasn't until the last five years or so that I began working on playing piano and guitar together.
"I approach it like a single instrument, though — one instrument with a really big tonal range. I try to blend them together, to make them sound unified."
Listen to the series of Blue Note albums that Jordan, 52, cut during the '80s and '90s, and what you will hear isn't a guitarist promoting an unexpected technique as a novelty. He also incorporated the stylistic influences of his contemporaries. Jordan's album Standards, Volume 1, the 1986 follow-up to Magic Touch, wasn't a collection of familiar jazz classics, but rather pop tunes by The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon, among others, that exhibited his touch guitar technique without accompaniment or overdubs.
Jordan's newest album, Friends, further shakes up the equation. It adds an array of guest artists — including guitarists Charlie Hunter, Mike Stern, Bucky Pizzarelli and Russell Malone and violinist Regina Carter, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and saxophonist Kenny Garrett — to a session hosted by an artist who already masters the art of musical duplicity.
As usual, the stylistic range of the record is vast. Jordan digs deep into a beefy variation of the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps with Stern, a blues-swing-boogie version of the Katy Perry hit I Kissed a Girl with Hunter, an exhibition of Jordan's piano- guitar symmetry, and a duet variation on the Romantic Intermezzo from Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra with Carter, on which Jordan sticks exclusively to piano.
"I always try to make the music sound good no matter what," Jordan said. "I'm always trying to mesh with whomever I'm playing with.
"Charlie Hunter, for example, is a very polyphonic player like me. He plays multiple parts but plays them in more of a low register. So he's more of a bass player who plays with an extra melody line, where I'm more of a melody player who also plays a bass line. It was an automatic fit.
"Now, Mike Stern and I jammed on Giant Steps years ago in a hotel somewhere. I always wanted people to hear this arrangement. I mean, that song is so important for musicians who are serious about their craft. You have to spend some time on Giant Steps."
But some of the most important music Jordan has been pursuing of late has little to do with guitars, one or multiple. He has been studying for a master's degree in music therapy in hopes of finding ways to explore and promote music as a healing force. His degree is on hold now because of his touring and recording schedules. But he regularly is an advocate and spokesman for music therapy wherever his own art takes him.
"Being an M.D. was another career path I could have chosen because I like to help other people. But music is my favorite thing in the whole world. To discover a way to help others through music was a thrill for me.
"Music is the only stimulus that we know of that can simultaneously stimulate every area of the brain. It stimulates the brain, it stimulates the immune system, it elevates people on a spiritual level. That just shows you what a universal tool for healing music can be."