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Jazz in An Acid Bath

Ronny Jordan
All That Jazzmatazz: Guitarist Ronny Jordan wedded jazz to hip-hop.

Photo by Nick White

The new age of hip-hop jazz owes its success to guitarist Ronny Jordan

By Nicky Baxter

RONNY JORDAN bends over his Gibson 335, porkpie hat partially obscuring his dark, handsome features. Well-manicured fingers scrabble spiderlike across the fretboard. Crisply played octaves spin out, chased by bursts of crisply executed Charlie Christian runs. Behind him, a rhythm section weaned on P-Funk James Brown as well as John Coltrane steams up the windows of the now-defunct Ajax Lounge--but is it jazz?

The rap on Jordan is that he's not really a "jazz" artist at all, the implication being that black creative music's boundaries are immutable. The guitarist could cite "legitimate" influences like Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Christian as proof of his fealty to the uncut stuff, but in truth, the guitarist seems hardly concerned that the jazz police have banished him from scene as impure. Indeed, he'd be the first to admit it.

"I could give a damn what the jazz purists say," he says, testily. "A lot of these guys don't know what they're talking about. I mean, you don't go to a basketball fan to learn about basketball, do you? No, you go to Michael Jordan or someone who's played the game. My job was to sort of spoonfeed people. Now there are more young people listening to jazz, thanks to myself and Guru and others."

In fact, few could argue with Jordan's signal role in ushering in the new age of acid jazz. Virtually alone, Jordan has rescued jazz guitar from irrelevancy and sold it to the public as an emblem of what is hip in the '90s. Significantly, the vast majority of his audience is young people unencumbered by the albatross of "jazz history."

Light to Dark

JORDAN'S MUSICAL roots extend back to the gospel tradition--no surprise here considering that his father was a man of the cloth. "In the early '80s, the whole Brit-funk thing was already happening," he recalls. "Bands like Parliament were coming over, and they had a huge influence on musicians. I know I was [influenced]. But I was also listening to gospel. In fact, I was playing gospel before jazz or funk." He cites the likes of Edwin Hawkins Singers and Andraé Crouch as inspirational figures.

The gospel groups Jordan performed with around London were, in his words, "damn funky." The transition from gospel's provincialism to cosmopolitan funk is something of a leap from faith, musically, and though his papa didn't like it, Jordan chose life in "the world" over the sanctity of the church.

"I've always played what I like," he says, "even when I was playing in clubs and no one was really paying attention. I've always loved jazz, but then, I liked Earth, Wind & Fire as well, George Clinton, Sly and those cats."

Jordan explains that his style hasn't changed much since the '80s. "I've been playing this way for years. What happened was, in 1980, I'd just finished a year of college and could have gone on to a second, but instead I went into jazz hip-hop. I went into the studio and cut a song called 'After Hours,' playing all the instruments myself, but no one was interested. Island Records just didn't want to know." Ironically, he would eventually wind up on Island's roster.

Even to casual observers, it is plain that Light to Dark (4th & B'Way/Island), Jordan's new album, doesn't contain straight-up jazz, nor does it rely solely on hip-hop's slam to win you over. The emphatically funky "Into the Light" is one of a couple of exceptions to the cool rule. Despite flashing his prowess on the wah-wah pedal on "Downtime," Jordan is content to flaunt his immense debt to Wes Montgomery. Given the late guitarist's propensity for melodic songcraft, it is easy to imagine Montgomery enlisting the services of a pop-styled songbird just as Jordan does on "I See You."

There would be no Light to Dark, however, were it not for Jordan's spiffy remodeling job on Miles Davis' cool classic "So What" four years ago. The single proved to be a definitive statement in the still-embryonic acid-jazz genre. Until that time, no one associated with improvisational music had been brash enough to graft hip-hop's beat-heavy inner-city grooves with jazz's increasingly bourgeois gentility. Jordan, along with Guru's collective venture Jazzmatazz (of whom Jordan is a charter member), returned the music to the 'hood. Which is, after all, where it came from in the first place.

Ronny Jordan performs Wednesday at 9pm at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Tickets are $8 adv. (415/324-EDGE)

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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