The Art of the Sit-In | Stanley Jordan
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Tom Hamilton, Rob Barraco, Eric Krasno, John Kadlecik, Marc Friedman and others.
The connection dropped a few times during my recent chat with Stanley Jordan, but all the grief the guitar master gave me was a low-key chuckle.
“No problem. Getting the sound exactly right is what I do.”
Jordan came from the jazz world and certainly wouldn’t be the first jazz-fusion ace to cross into the jamband realm in search of new adventures. But over the past few years, Jordan’s been downright ubiquitous, turning up as a sit-in guest with everyone from Dave Matthews Band, Umphrey’s McGee and moe. to Phil Lesh & Friends and the String Cheese Incident, all while maintaining a steady clip of Stanley Jordan solo gigs, and various combinations of duos, trios and occasionally fuller bands to support his expanding repertoire.
Jordan’s distinctive, two-handed tapping style of playing and willingness to explore have burnished his reputation for sonic sorcery and also made him adaptable. Along with a full plate of summer gigs, he’ll be the official Artist-at-Large at this weekend’s Gathering of the Vibes festival, and he joined JamBase earlier this month to talk shop.
JAMBASE: You’re Artist-at-Large at the Vibes, and you’ve had this role at festivals before. How do you decide with whom you’re going to sit-in? How much of that gets discussed ahead of time?
STANLEY JORDAN: I love to jam. It’s a lot of fun to me; it’s just what I like to do. I was at High Sierra recently and played with my band, and the next day I just stayed to jam with other artists. The great thing about this job is that I never quite know ahead of time what I have to do to create music that works with different, diverse artists. I get to find out.
One of the bands I will for sure be playing with [at the Vibes] is Dopapod. We’ve been exchanging messages and I’ve been listening to some of their stuff and telling them, hey, I like that one in particular, maybe we try this one, can you send me sheet music for that. I really like to get the music of the band and figure out what is the soul of that music: what is that music all about and trying to do?
To give an example, I was frequently a guest with Dave Matthews Band last year and the year before. And every song I played on, I really tried to get to know the song and what the song is about so I could enhance the song. I wanted every note I played to contribute to what the song was about.
Dave Matthews Band is really a singer-songwriter thing in a rock band format. The singer/songwriter thing – that’s why I have to remember that these are amazing songs with deep lyrics. The rock band format – that’s why I have to remember to not get too deep and to bring the energy and the excitement and make it work in the big arena-sized show. That’s how I approach it.
JAMBASE: So you like to get to know the bands before your sit-in and at least have some familiarity with the music?
SJ: Whenever I have an opportunity, yes. At High Sierra, [drummer] Kenwood Dennard and I sat it with Katdelic. There wasn’t much time to do the research, so we came to their set and listened a while to what they were playing, and then looked at each other and said “OK, we know what we’ve got to do here.” Ken is the same way; he loves to play a lot of different kinds of music. He’s actually going to be at Gathering of the Vibes, too, and probably going to sit in with some of the situations I am.
JAMBASE: How do you find your way into these opportunities? And I mean everything from Umphrey’s McGee and moe. to Phil Lesh & Friends and all the others we could name.
SJ: The first time I saw Umphrey’s was at South by Southwest in I think 2006. I got a message that some of those guys knew of me and wanted to invite me to sit in, and I heard them play, and I was like, this isn’t music I can just get up and sit-in on – this is pretty intricate stuff. We didn’t end up playing together then, but they did this big show in Chicago and then New Year’s Eve they invited me to come and I was able to get in and do some rehearsing with them. That was important; it gave me a chance to do justice to their stuff.
Another one is EOTO. EOTO was a different case. I knew them before because I had sat in here and there with String Cheese. I kind of knew what they did, but EOTO is such a unique group and I’d love to go really beyond with them if there’s a chance to do it.
JAMBASE: How about Phil & Friends?
SJ: I was a youngster living in the Bay Area when the Dead were first getting started and of course I knew about how they would go on these long, improvisational journeys. They actually influenced me as I got into jazz. I was so happy to even tell that to Phil just to say thank you.
This all works on different levels because it’s not just the music, it’s the people who make the music and listen to the music. It’s a hard-to-define element; it’s the vibe, it’s the feeling. You can’t really explain it in theory but I think it’s part of what makes collaboration work.
JAMBASE: How did you get recruited to Phil Lesh & Friends?
SJ: The way I met Phil was that I was at my college reunion at Princeton. People were saying, hey Phil Lesh is going to be playing, and the place where he played was in the backyard of the place I used to live. When I was at Princeton, it was an eating club, and what happened was that his son was graduating and was a member of the club I used to be a member of. So Phil did this performance with his sons as a celebration of the graduation.
I went there, partly for the reunion and also to hear the music, and it turned out that the dressing room they used was my room when I lived there. I was standing out there with a few of my friends who I’d known since we were students together, and we said who would have thought 30 years ago that we’d be in this exact same spot listening to Phil. A lot of Grateful Dead music got played in that place back in the day. We were people who loved that music, so it makes perfect sense that some day we would be back there and he would be there playing.
That, to me, is an unspoken thing. It goes beyond the notes – there’s a meaning to it. I ask my students all the time, why do you play music? And I usually get a long pause and they’ll say, it’s something we don’t think about a lot. We need to think about why we play. The better reason you have for playing, the better your music is going to be. So if I’m playing [Grateful Dead music], I want to get swept up in the lineage of this American culture treasure.
JAMBASE: So how did that meeting at Princeton lead to you playing with him?
SJ: I timidly walked up to him during the sound check and Phil saw me and I could tell he was a little bit like, who is this, but he was nice and he didn’t say, who are you, get out of here, or anything like that. One of the guys in the band actually recognized me and I started talking with him, and all about how I used to live there, and then the band introduced me to Phil.
JAMBASE: Do you stay in touch with Phil?
SJ: Off and on, yes. I’ve done several Phil & Friends shows and I’m sure that’s going to happen again. And I noticed that Joe Russo has one of the bands at Gathering of the Vibes, and I think I’m going to reach out to him – maybe that will work out.
JAMBASE: Going back to the question of how you select sit-ins for your Artist-at-Large status, is it you reaching out to other artists or people coming to you?
SJ: I’m doing a lot of reach-out to people I know who I’ve played with before, which [at Vibes] is a lot of people. Dopapod, though – they actually reached out to me. I suppose if I sit and wait for the phone to ring I’d get enough opportunities as it is. But I don’t want to sit and wait. I want to talk with these artists about what we’re going to do together.
And don’t get me wrong. I love to be spontaneous. But the more preparation that can be done just makes it that much better. The list of bands at Gathering of the Vibes, I’ve played with quite a few of them. If I think about it, I’ve played with EOTO, I’ve played with Widespread Panic, I’ve played with Karl Denson and moe and Umphrey’s and so forth.
JAMBASE: Have you ever been in a sit-in situation where, for whatever reason, you just couldn’t get into it or couldn’t find your spot with a certain band?
SJ: I think I have. They’re not all equal – not all the best. But it’s kind of like, there’s good sex and there’s great sex, you know? It’s mostly all good. There have been a couple of people through the years where, for whatever reason, we just didn’t click. And when I say that I’m actually thinking of someone from the jazz world. I won’t mention who, and it is pretty rare, but occasionally it does happen.
To me the thing to do is be adaptable to the situation. It’s an interesting challenge, and if what we’re playing together isn’t working, I’ll try to adapt. To give an example, Brad Mehldau. I saw a collaboration he did with another artist, and I won’t mention who, but watching them I didn’t feel that person was musically on Brad’s level.
Brad could run rings around this person, but he didn’t – it wasn’t about his ego – and he was real gracious in adapting to play things that would be the best fit for this person and him together. I really respect him for doing that because not everyone [at his level] would. It’s adapting.
JAMBASE: Is there any type of situation, or style of music, where you’d turn down a collaboration opportunity without even trying to adapt?
SJ: Not among any of the artists I’m aware of at Gathering of the Vibes. And I don’t know, you know? I’m so open-minded. I’m a student of music therapy, and I think doing that has opened things up for me even more. In music therapy, the music is a means to some other end. It’s never about your ego, and you get accustomed to it being about that something else.
I did a session with a little girl who was maybe two, two-and-a-half. She had had massive brain damage since birth, she wasn’t developing normally, and the only thing she would really respond to was music. I played different things for her and it was, do you like the blues? And I played some blues for her and her face frowned, and I was like, OK, she doesn’t like the blues. [laughs]
And in that case, it wasn’t at all about what I wanted to play or something on my mind. It was, what can I play that is going to reach her – that is going to find her in a place she doesn’t normally engage. If she becomes communicative to the music, that is a big win. And the fact that she expressed a preference to hear or not hear a certain type of music, that’s beyond what it was thought she would be capable of given her situation. I’m accustomed to trying whatever works. I’ve got a big enough bag of tricks that I can adjust.
JAMBASE: You seem like you’ve had an affinity for the jam scene and the bands that make it up for quite some time. But it also seems like it’s been only in the last few years that you’ve been actively sitting in. Is it something you just decided to pursue more aggressively?
SJ: I would say yes, and it has been more recent. The turning point, if I can point to one, I think would be New Year’s Eve going into 2012. I just happened to be in Hollywood because I’d finished a gig there, and I was looking around and finding nothing to do. I wanted to go out and have some fun, and not finding much, I was literally already in bed – I was like, forget it. But then I thought, hey, let me do one last check to see if there’s anything going on. And I looked again, and…how could I have not seen this one?
So Tim Reynolds was playing with TR3 right around the corner from where I was, and it was starting in like an hour from when I saw the listing. I got down there and rang in the new year with TR3. Tim and I had played before, and he’s just a wonderful player and a great guy. I had so much fun that night, and it really was a turning point: I need to be playing in more of these rock situations. This is a part of me. I need this.
JAMBASE: Are most of the sit-in situations you’ve been in since then gigs you’ve sought out or people seeking you out?
SJ: A little bit of both. I think it’s mostly me seeking out situations, but things lead to other things. Jam Cruise, for example, they contacted my agent because I had done a few things that had put me on their radar. So they contacted us, and I went and while I was there I met all kinds of people. It’s kind of a snowball effect. The more stuff you hear, you open up your mind and you get ideas: I want to play with this person and I want to play with that person.
One example from Jam Cruise is someone I haven’t played with yet but I became a huge fan of since that show, and that was Bootsy [Collins]. I knew that music since it was first popular, but I had never actually since him before. When I saw him with his band on Jam Cruise, this was like the most amazing, virtuoso-level funk that hit as music in every sense of the word. Bootsy is brilliant, I just don’t know how else to say it. I didn’t expect to be that blown away.
JAMBASE: What were your impressions of Jam Cruise? Folks who caught your shows there were very admiring.
SJ: I loved it. I would love to do it again. I just felt so compatible with the world there, and I had so many interesting conversations with people. It felt like I belonged there. I mean, it was funny, someone asked me, what are you going to wear on costume night? I said, well, I didn’t realize there was a costume night and the person explained it to me. I just happened to have a belly dancing costume, so I said, well, I guess I’ll wear that. [laughs] I didn’t even have to figure it out – I was already ready for costume night! In every way, I just felt like I should have been in that situation and need to be in these types of situations.
JAMBASE: I’m sure there are lots, but can you name an artist or band whom you’d like to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?
SJ: Another band that blew me away, and I saw them at Electric Forest, was Digital Tape Machine. Like I said I know a couple of members, and I was talking with Joel [Cummins] and I said to him, man, you guys are like an EDM orchestra. That’s the best way I could explain it, and he was like, yes, you got what we’re about.
That’s an interesting band because each one of them can make this really huge and complex sound with what they have and when you put all of that together, the level of complexity is unprecedented because it’s so well synchronized that it never sounds messy. That blew me away. I would love to do something with Digital Tape Machine.
JAMBASE: I wanted to ask you about some of the covers you regularly play, especially in your solo gigs, like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” How to choose what material to interpret?
SJ: In a sense these are songs I’ve always played. “Stairway,” I mean, I grew up playing that. What I didn’t get was that that was so unusual in the jazz world when I was coming up. When I signed with Blue Note Records, and Bruce Lundvall was the president, he made an interesting observation. He said, I know you play a lot of these more recent popular tunes, but you play them like standards.
These tunes are standards to me, but at the time, there was some feedback from others that maybe doing stuff like that couldn’t get you respected as a real jazz player. Something about that stuck in my craw. Damn it these aren’t pop tunes – they’re standards, and they may not mean anything to you guys, but they’re standards from my generation and I’m going to hold them up that way. My  album Standards, Vol. 1 had a lot of that music – I was saying then, they are standards because I declare them standards.
Nowadays, that’s not such a big deal: people cover these songs all the time. But I never thought it was anything unusual. I’m doing it with today’s music, too. I’m playing Katy Perry, and I play Adele and Ellie Goulding on the next thing coming out. If I get a spark, I’ll go with it.
With the Katy Perry song “I Kissed a Girl,” she already kind of helped us out because she did a jazzy, unplugged version. We based our version on that jazzy version.
JAMBASE: Will you be out a bunch more with your trio this year?
SJ: Let’s see. Most of the shows scheduled now are actually solo shows, but some are trio shows. I will be doing some other things, and I’m also working on my Brazil tour, for which I always play with my Brazilian band and I love seeing those guys. But 60 to 70 percent of the upcoming shows will be solo.
JAMBASE: At the end of the day, is solo your preferred format?
SJ: A lot of my core audience especially likes the solo stuff. But I love playing with a band because I get to create more sound and more interaction. It’s a different thing. I would say the solo thing is more in my core. And doing thing solo, I can reach levels of sensitivity that I can’t in any other way.
But what I’m doing with some of the band stuff is moving it a little bit in that direction so it’s more like the solo stuff, that we can go after this sensitivity together. You hear some of that all the way back on [1985’s] Magic Touch, where it’s mainly solo guitar but then there’s percussion added next to the guitar. I like working with the band and an extension of that solo sensitivity.
JAMBASE: Do you find you have to explain these concepts to your bandmates or do you pick people who just get it?
SJ: It’s not the same with everyone. Some get it more than others, and I think you do end up moving toward the people who naturally have a feel for what you want to do. Kenwood is the drummer that plays with me the most, and he’s very versatile. Left to his own devices, he kind of goes toward the more intense expressions, and I suppose that’s normal for a drummer [laughs]. But he’s so versatile and flexible, and if I need him to play down and really sensitive, he’s capable of doing that and won’t cop an attitude like how dare you tell me how to play. He’s like me: he’ll modify his approach to fit the vibe. That’s really what I’m about.
Stanley Jordan’s been a ubiquitous sit-in guest on the jam scene over the past few years, so picking even a handful of appearances is a tough exercise. But here are five we feel illustrate his chameleonic nature – adapting to different scenarios and really adding to the music.
In choosing to focus on Stanley’s sit-ins with jambands, this list obviously doesn’t get into his solo, duet, trio and other ensemble appearances under his own name. So as always, choose your own adventure with an artist this deep and versatile – and be well rewarded.
EOTO likes to get deep into the sonic thicket, and Jordan proved a willing co-conspirator during this much-loved set from Horning’s.
Dave Matthews Band, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA, 9/9/2012
Stanley’s been a guest of DMB more than a dozen times since 2012, and while he’s lent a little something to all of those shows, we’re partial to this night, in which he arrives mid-set for “Satellite” and then a gnarly “Lie In Our Graves.”
Phil Lesh & Friends, Roseland Ballroom, NYC, 11/13/2012
JamBase Stormy Mondays curator Dan Alford quite astutely described how the guitars in this underrated Phil ensemble “wound around each other” during this show. It’s a mesmerizing listen from start to finish, and the Stanley-dominated Set 2 sequence of “Estimated > Eyes > Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is both tender and agile.
Umphrey’s McGee, Center Stage at the Landing, Peoria, IL, 7/7/2013
There’s a trove of stellar Stanley-with-Umphrey’s appearances to chose from, but his stamp is all over this Illinois gig from last summer, where he jams with Umph on “Great American,” David Bowie’s “Fame” and then a coursing second set segment of “Much Obliged” into Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Lenny.”
moe., moe.down XIV, Turin, NY, 8/11/2013
Stanley was a big part of this monster moe.down show last year, spicing up “Yodelittle” and “meat” in the heart of the second set, and then returning at the beginning of the encore, along with Kenwood Dennard, for “Rebubula.”