Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Jeff Beck : less is less

Occasional guitar genius Jeff Beck.
Jeff Beck is a tiresome guitar player whose penchant for sparse noodling sends too many listeners, seduced by legacy and legend,  into reveries about how "less is more" and the virtues of having a minimal palette of tones. Truth be told, less is merely less and a Jeff Beck performance means there will be huge, gaping spaces in an improvised section, while the guitarist waits for what seems like the random moment to lay another twist to the string. His band, particularly on the Live at Ronnie Scott's album, stays busy while the master awaits is riffing muse, laying down a carpet of funk with a fabric of high-register bass work, minimal drum work, and a variety of ethereal space chords emanating from the keyboards. John Cage had the notion that the audience need to sit in their impatient stews for some periods so they have a chance to listen to their own music (Zen/chance practices in music are more exciting theorized about than experienced firsthand) and the take away for me is that the point of going to a Jeff Beck concert is to confront his reputation and to wait for him to do something interesting. This is what the late critic Steve Esmedina called "boredom as aesthetic effect". Beck, I'm sure, intends other things, and thinks himself akin to Miles Davis, another musician who never burdened his solos with gratuitous technique. Davis, though, could build tension and, when required, fire on all cylinders and make it frantic, exciting, breathe taking. Beck does not do that. Decades go by and endless conversations refer to the genius of Beck and still, nothing happens at the address I was given. I understand that and we have, of course, is essentially subjectivities competing for dominance.

The matter isn’t whether Beck can play guitar. As a blues/rock guitarist who first came to American attention during the British invasion of the Sixties with the Yardbirds and later with his string of short-lived (but memorable) ensembles, Beck is a pioneer in matters of extending the vocabulary of an African American vernacular and incorporating elements of funk, jazz, reggae and fusion and rockabilly into his particular mix. He’s recorded quite a bit of music that still makes me turn my head and stare incredulously at the speakers; when he wasn’t being cheap with his playing and willing to lavish more in guitar bravado, his guitar work is of a whole piece.

 Not just flashy solos, which were, in fact, the least of Beck’s best art, but of control of tone color,  splendidly, tasty fills in the interstices of his band’s alternately rocking or funky fury, attacks, flurries and elongated elaborations on the tremolo bar when your attention was otherwise engaged.  What makes Jeff Beck a great guitarist (when he wants to show off) is that while his compatriots were concentrating on the number of notes they could cram into a twelve-bar or sixteen bar phrase, he did what Miles Davis did with is trumpet after he ventured from the fast, rapid, conspicuously virtuoso inclined sphere of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and instead pared back his soloing to what was essential and made musical sense. 

While others dominated their songs and performances with fusillades that eventually became a comfortable rut, Beck filled his accorded solo slots with the gift of space, fewer notes, high register bends, and unique tunings. I put forth his first two albums The Jeff Beck Group and Beckola in evidence and will skip ahead to his fusion release Wired and still later Beck’s Guitar Shop as prime examples. That sweet, discerning blend of flash, taste, discretionary speed, off-center attack and an uncanny mastery of electric guitar volume are marvels for future generations to listen to if they wonder what all fuss was about. These weren’t records by an artist still making his reputation. Presently, his reputation is made, his name now a brand, his work too frequently a stylized snore.  Again, I wish Beck would indulge the less savory side of his musical nature and burn a hole in the state no one can leap over.

That, though, is part of the fun of discussing musicians and their work. It just seemed to me that Beck has refined his style over the decades to the point that he is drastically essentialist in the tweaking of his playing; all the speedy, distorted, flashier bits are missing in large measure in the interest of a more mature purity, Artists, as they age, do that, but I think Beck's ruthless reappraisal of his chops has, for me, left much of what he's recorded sound empty. I would love to hear Beck rave it up again, to cram a lot of notes into a measure and make them stick, like he used to.

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