Aug. 4 2010 12:00 AM

For Stanley Jordan, making music just comes naturally



Not long ago, jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan went back to nature, but it was damn hard to find.

“I’ve always been kind of a nature boy at heart,” Jordan said.

Reached by phone at a gig in Portugal last week, Jordan said his latest CD, “State of Nature,” started out as another “album of songs, just like usual,” but the routine wasn’t working for him.

After a few sessions, he lit out of the studio for a vacation, “to upgrade my state of mind.”

He took his girlfriend to places where he played as a child and hadn’t seen since.

“I wanted to show her some of my sacred spaces,” Jordan said.

Jordan, 51, grew up in California’s Silicon Valley in the 1960s. “A lot of it was still orchards,” he said. “My sister and I used to spend a lot of time in the trees and in the creek, catching frogs.”

There were also frequent trips to the hills or the beach with his family.

Decades later, Jordan could hardly recognize his old haunts.

“I could really see the evidence of the changing environment,” he said. “It was bittersweet.”

That’s when the nature theme came together in his mind.

“I wanted to show both sides of it,” he said. “The beauty, but also the destruction.”

Jordan isn’t turning his back on razzledazzle. “State of Nature” closes with a joyful, Grammy-nominated stomp through Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” As headliner at Lansing’s JazzFest, he’ll treat the crowd to a solo set unleashing the famous “tapping” style that lets him play two melodies, even two guitars, at once.

Lately, however, Jordan has focused more on the healing power of music.

“The technique is a means to an end,” he said. “I developed the touch technique, playing the guitar like a piano, because I had music in my head that I couldn’t play.”

News of Michigan’s recent Kalamazoo River oil spill reminded Jordan of a major theme of “State of Nature.” You don’t have to be evil to mess things up — just inattentive. Jordan’s elegiac take on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic “How Insensitive” makes the point gently.

“We don’t mean it,” he said. “That’s important. I’m sure those people in Michigan didn’t intend to dump that oil, and BP didn’t intend to spill that oil in the Gulf. We have to be more careful in the beginning.”

He plumbs other forms of insensitivity in tracks like “Mind Games” and “Shadow Dance.”

“I’m looking at the psychological shadow — the things we don’t think about,” he said. “This habit of being in denial is part of a pattern of what separates us from nature.”

Jordan now lives far from the showbiz circus, in Sedona, Ariz.

“There’s so much beautiful landscape,” he said. “I get a lot of inspiration for my music out there.”

In the past decade, he has become a spokesman for music therapy.

Everybody has a story about how this or that song, album or symphony changed their life. Music therapy leans into that healing energy.

“It’s the opposite of how so many people are using music,” he said. Too often, music is used to deaden, sedate or distract people from reality. “When emotion in music starts to get too powerful, some people start to get a little uncomfortable,” he said.

For years, Jordan said, the music industry has taken a “reductionist” approach, like the emperor in the film “Amadeus” who scolds Mozart for using “too many notes.”

(Not coincidentally, Jordan takes a slow drag from Mozart’s famous Piano Concerto No. 21 on “State of Nature.”)

“Let’s make it simple, palatable, easy,” Jordan said, in the voice of an imaginary exec. “That may have been a good short-term strategy for making hits, but in the long run, that’s why people don’t care as much about music as they used to.”

He thinks that philosophy has run its course.

“You have a lot of young people were brought up on manufactured music,” he said. “They’re discovering independent stuff, stuff that’s not in the mainstream. We’re set for a resurgence of the public appreciating the power of music.”

But Jordan cautioned that it’s a two-way street. Musicians have to opt out of the reductionist game, too.

“We really have to be sincere, and we have to play the music we truly love.”

He seems pleased with his own recent path.

“I think I’ve learned how to make records that come close to the experience of a concert, although there’s no substitute for the energy of playing live,” he said.

In “State of Nature,” there’s a moment in a cello-and-piano track, “Healing Waves,” that moves him to tears, but not for a reason you might expect.

“Three or four minutes in, there’s a dog barking in there,” Jordan said. (It’s at 4:08 by my reckoning.) “We recorded the waves on a beach. Right after the dog barking, I imagine a little kid saying ‘Mommy, Daddy, look! It’s so beautiful.’”