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(Atco Records 523695 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/24/2010)
Back in the days of the 1960s British Invasion, the British blues scene had a lot of American rock fans discovering the great American music form through a bunch of youngsters from England. Quite a few players who came out of that scene, who happened to be be in the right place at the right time, became some of the icons of rock and the staple of classic rock radio, even now perhaps 45 years later. The band called The Yardbirds was one of the most influential on the British blues scene, with its three successive guitarists all becoming some of the most recognizable names in rock music -- Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame, and Jeff Beck. All remain relatively active. While Clapton has become a pop vocal star who still plays the blues from time to time, and Page dabbles occasionally with projects, Jeff Beck has been the most creatively restless. Over the years, Beck has done a series of recordings ranging from founding the group that first featured Rod Stewart, to doing jazz-rock fusion in the 1970s, to creating one of the classic instrumental rock guitar albums of all time, Blow by Blue, with Beatles producer George Martin. In recent years, Beck has tried some edgier music and done some electronic and synthesizer based recordings, in addition to fairly numerous side projects
But now at age 65, he is out with a new CD called Emotion & Commotion, which is one of his most musically ambitious to date, and fully on the par with Blow by Blow. Like the latter, there is a prominent orchestra, and this CD has a somewhat varied cast of musical characters, with different drummers and bassists, plus three very different guest women vocalists, including young pop-soul singer Joss Stone, and an opera vocalist Gloria Safe. Beck's most frequent collaborators on the new CD are keyboard man Jason Rebello and orchestral arranger Pete Murray. The material is an interesting mix -- there are two classical pieces, including a Puccini aria, and two pieces that were recorded by the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley -- neither of which were Buckley compositions -- a version of Over the Rainbow, plus some originals, some written with or by Rebello.
Beck's guitar work is quite tasteful and often understated. Beck can be a guitar flash when we wants, but among the elders of rock guitar, he has always managed to say a lot with relatively few notes. And his electric guitar tone on this CD is also a nice match for the musical contexts in which he plays, including the orchestra.
Like Blow by Blow 35 years ago, the tracks on Emotion & Commotion flow together and overlap some, which is a wonderful way of thwarting those who would deconstruct the album into tunes to be downloaded. This is one of those concept albums like the days of yore when people actually had some kind of attention span.
The CD opens with Corpus Christi Carol a classical piece by Benjamin Britten that is also one of the tunes that Jeff Buckley recorded. Buckley's version is cited by Beck in his liner notes. The short piece a wonderful mixture of Beck's restrained, atmospheric guitar with the plaintive orchestration. <<>>
That leads into the appropriately-named Hammerhead. The track brings back Beck's jazz-rock fusion influence with the energy level cranked up to ten. The orchestra is still in there though. <<>>
The CD continues its ebb and flow as it segues into another highlight, Never Alone. In his liner notes, Beck said he was thinking about the jazz/classical a cappella group the Swingle Singers from years ago. He suggested that Rebello use some synthesized voices to add to the texture. <<>>
Joss Stone makes her first appearance on a cover of the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song I Put a Spell On You. On paper, it seems like an odd choice for this CD, given the other material, but it works perfectly. Ms. Stone does great job, while the arrangement evokes early 1960s pop songs. <<>>
Another creative contrast that nicely fits in is an original piece by Beck and keyboard man Rebello called Serene. Making a subtle appearance is the vocalist Olivia Safe. It's a got a great easy-going groove, that meshes surprisingly well with the opera singer's wordless vocals and the orchestra. <<>>
The other track on this CD that Beck was inspired to do by Jeff Buckley, is Lilac Wine, a composition that goes back to 1947. Imelda May is the guest vocalist. It's a tastefully handled torch song, given a spacey touch by Beck's guitar. <<>>
Doing Over the Rainbow on an album like this with a full orchestra has the potential for serious schmaltz, but while it's not the hippest track on the CD, it is very nicely done. <<>>
And the other tune that is light-years from what one would expect a British blues-rock guitar icon to be playing is the aria Nessun Dorma from Piccini's opera Turandot. I think it's probably the least successful track on the CD, but it's still pretty respectable. <<>>
Those of a certain generation may cringe a bit at the thought that here is a rock icon who has reached what used to be considered retirement age. But Jeff Beck is has probably been more active in the last year or so than many artists half his age. He won another Grammy for rock instrumental recording, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a second time last year, and he is on a tour with another Yardbirds veteran, Eric Clapton. He'll be embarking on a worldwide tour to support this CD as well. Lean, athletic and fully hirsute, he also still looks the part of the rocker.
But besides all of that, on his relatively short 40 minute CD, Jeff Beck has made what I think could be the best album of his 45 year career. It's on the level of his classic recording Blow by Blow but I think the musicianship and the arranging are better. And, it's wonderfully eclectic and yet tasteful, cramming a great musical journey into that 40 minutes.
Sonically, we'll also give the CD a rare unrestricted grade "A". The guitar sound is sumptuous, the orchestra is just the right blend of atmospherics and acoustic sound, and the recording actually has a wide dynamic range. The music can start out very soft but when the cranked-up rock material comes in, it has lots of impact.
Some rockers don't age well musically, either getting stuck in the past plying the oldies circuit, or trying unsuccessfully to be trendy. Jeff Beck may be 65 years old, but he's definitely at the top of his form on his new CD Emotion and Commotion.
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