By Chris Cooper
It’s in the phrasing; the careful sculpting of each and every note. It’s something about the intent, the message conveyed with each musical statement. The way Jeff Beck grabs a guitar string and twists, bends, swoops and otherwise manipulates it with the sheer force of his will is one of the most magical things in music, and has been for the last forty odd years.
While the names Hendrix, Clapton, Page and Santana easily conjure up visions of six-string greatness in almost anyone’s mind, Beck belongs at the top of that heap while inexplicably remaining woefully unrecognized and underappreciated outside of musician’s circles. Here’s a guy that slipped tasty and forward thinking raga inspired ideas and radically fuzzed out tones into his work with the Yardbirds in the 60’s, fused the complexities of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s work with his “from the hip” guitar style in the 70’s (and with a broader sense of melody and accessibility) with the classic albums Wired and Blow By Blow, and appeared on pop tunes in the 80’s that everybody heard. And still, even still, most people couldn’t name one of his songs. I mean, Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel was largely based on Jeff Beck, right down to the scene where he’s thumbing through a hot rod magazine in the airport. It’s a mystery for the ages, I tell you.
With the release of Live At Ronnie Scott’s, the most fascinating things about Beck are fully and beautifully displayed. The set is culled from a five-night stand that touches on the best of his catalog, and I shouldn’t even try to point out the highlights. Not only is the guitarist fearless and in the finest of form, his band is completely up to the task as well. When your drummer has the last name Colaiuta, things can’t really go wrong. Twenty-one-year-old bass phenom Tal Wilkenfeld is nearly as bold as the bandleader himself; her solo early in the set on Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” let alone her relentless pocket throughout the album is the glue that makes these musical conversations work. Listen to a track like “Angel (Footsteps)” and try to think of a bassist that can make a groove like this move in such a sensual way. Only a few should come to mind, and those would likely be some of the best in the business. And Beck’s exploration of the world of melodic possibilities contained within such a groove is the reason I’m writing this — the man has a set of golden ears, a sense of harmony that did not come from this planet.
People talk about how certain musicians have reached the point of having their chosen instrument become almost another limb, a part of their body. With Beck, this is painfully true. Not to get too technical, but his use of the whammy (or tremolo) bar on the Fender Stratocaster is the epitome of taste and control. His sense of pitch and control, his ability to scoop one note into another is simply beyond compare. The guitarist’s sense of timing and phrasing has been compared to the best of vocalists, whether it’s Billy Holiday or the Bulgarian choir singers that have inspired him over the years. And while he can interpret songs by almost anyone with equal aplomb (be it Mingus or McCartney), his irrepressible personality always shines through. If you’ve heard Beck once, you’ll know him every single time, and eventually you’ll recognize his influence on just about every reigning “guitar god” worth mentioning over the last — well, ever since there was such a term as “guitar god,” to be completely honest.
But if you absolutely need me to do a “song by song” thing, here we go: “Scatterbrain” is a furious reading that at least doubles the tempo of the original version- and if you know that version at all, this is a fairly scary proposition. “Nadia” shows off Beck’s otherworldly phrasing in an almost drum’n’bass context, and the seamless fusing of “Blast From The East” into “Led Boots” lets drummer Vinnie Colaiuta stretch his legs (and arms, and everything else) to great effect. That Beck’s guitar one moment resembles the tonality of a harmonica, a bagpipe, then a penny whistle, then some kind of tortured violin, then an “air raid siren dipped in honey” (not mine, but a most fitting description) is merely icing on the proverbial cake. Once the band hits the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” at least one thing’s clear; this isn’t just another instrumental guitar album from “just another” instrumental guitar guy — it’s a courageous musical statement from one of the finest musicians on the planet.
Live At Ronnie Scott’s is one of the rarest of listening opportunities. There have been plenty of fantastic guitar-oriented, mostly instrumental releases over the years, but this one in particular will likely be held in the highest regard. Why is that? Because for the longest time, Jeff Beck has been able to transcend his instrument to the point of purely and simply making music- yes, he can blow you away with sheer technique, his tone is impeccable, and it seems he can play anything in the world and make it sound magical. But what stands out over all of that is that he colors every musical moment with a different, often unexpected hue. He’s not afraid to be ugly and abrasive, because the next note will be as smooth and sexy as can be. He’ll slap you in the face and turn around and whisper in your ear, and accomplish it all with something as inherently barbaric as a plank of wood with some wires strapped to it. This is one of those “must have” recordings. That’s all I really have to say.