Ask anybody to name a famous guitar player from the 1960s-70s Big Bang of Rock and Roll you will likely hear a few familiar names. You will either hear somebody talk about the bluesy explosion of notes that was Eric Clapton in the Bluesbreakers and Cream, or you will hear someone ramble on about the Black Magik conjured by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin, both of whom got their start in British Blues-rockers the Yardbirds. However, if you ask a guitarist to name one of the greats from that era and it is very likely they will name Jeff Beck.
When Eric Clapton quit the Yardbirds over his objection to their decidedly more commercial direction, it was Jeff Beck who filled in and turned the Yardbirds from a cover band into one of the most influential bands of that era. After leaving, he teamed up with future chart topper Rod Stewart and future Rolling Stone, Ron Wood to form the Jeff Beck Group, a band that many consider one of the first heavy metal groups. However, after two albums, Beck had grown tired of the band and began dabbling in more unconventional styles, blending blues with fusion, Indian, Bulgarian folk and electronica. and over the years he has put out instrumental records as well as collaborating with Stevie Wonder, ZZ Top, Imogen Heap and Luciano Pavarotti. He has just enough fame to sustain himself, but enough anonymity to maintain his integrity.
If there is one compliment that is relished on Jeff the most it is that he makes his guitar "sing," in that most of his albums are instrumental yet he is able to emote so much that nobody really misses the vocals; he never wanks like say Yngwie Malmsteen. On Emotion and Commotion, we catch Jeff's ten fingers and six strings singing better than they ever have. Here, Geoff supplements his phenomenal touring band of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, Bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and keyboardist Jason Rebello with a 64-piece orchestra.
Whenever rock musicians decide to use orchestras, it is always a high wire act; the results are either wonderfully profound or insipidly pretentious. However, with Jeff, instead of using the orchestra to be a bed for him to lay his guitar riffs on, he instead chooses to flow with the orchestra. He is the soloist in his pieces but never drowns out the beauty of the strings or the horns. On the opener, "Corpus Christi Carol"-written by another famous Jeff, Buckley-the orchestra becomes the band on the original vocal while Jeff turns makes his guitar convey all of the glory of the original. On "Somewhere over the Rainbow," a song that is covered so often it can make even the biggest fan vomit, Jeff uses the whammy bar of his Stratocaster create the bounce in Judy Garland's original vocal performance.
Jeff also finds time to perform bits his own Jeff-ness. On "Hammerhead," Jeff proves you can make an orchestra really groove, as he goes on an the warpath in a violent Hendrixian fury, brutalizing his guitar until it begs for mercy. On "Never Alone," Jeff dabbles in Africana, having the rhythm section use shakers to create a tribal sound while he uses his guitar to make sounds of chanting. On "Serene," a jazzier number, Jeff lowers the volume but far from tones it down. He plays clever runs that would make John McLaughlin grin and lets bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, a 24 year old Australian woman with enough talent to keep Beck on his toes, take her own blistering solo.
While Jeff has proven over the years that he does not need a singer, whenever he does collaborate with one, fireworks are bound to happen. On the song "Lilac Wine," he teams up with Irish singer Imelda May for a hauntingly beautiful introspection. The song goes back and forth from minor to major to create the feeling of fluctuating emotions. In between May's lines of self reflection, Jeff plays beautifully fingerpicked lines that cacade over the orchestra's flourishes. Elsewhere, Jeff joins forces with British soul songstress, Joss Stone. Stone famously sang on a cover of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" with Beck during his weeklong stint at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, which can be seen on Live at Ronnie Scott's. Here they reprise their partnership on the violent screed "There's no Other Me," where Stone tugs at her vocal chords and spars with Beck's wailing guitars over a dub beat. But the hallmark of their collaboration comes when they cover the Screamin' Jay Hawkins/Nina Simone classic "I've Put a Spell on You." Beck and Stone capture all of the bayou hoodoo of the original on this track, and you can imagine Stone dressed as a gypsy with a crystal ball, and Beck puts on his best Albert King impersonation with his fills.
The gems of the whole album by far though are the versions of "Nessun Dorma" from the opera Turnadot and "Elegy for Dunkirk" from the film Atonement. On "Elegy," Beck uses Olivia safe for a duet while using the volume knob on his Stratocaster to make his guitar crescendo and descend, giving it a violin-like quality. On "Nessun Dorma," he starts out quietly, but as the song progresses, he weaves in and out of the orchestra, changing with the mood to culminate in a beautiful burst of ecstasy by the end of the song.
In rock's pantheon, good guitar players are a dime a dozen and many great guitarists fall off the face of the earth. However, Jeff Beck has proven that one can take the road less traveled and have a sustainable, long lasting career. He will probably never have the fame that his contemporaries have enjoyed but he has something that few in today's modern business can lay claim to: integrity; and that has led to him receiving the adulation and respect of his peers.