Ronny Jordan, Instrumental and Smooth jazz Artist
This week’s Featured Artist is a London born, self-taught guitarist, who started on the instrument at the tender age of four, and was playing live shows at the young age of 15. He is a pioneer of acid jazz, and can be credited as one of the first jazz guitarist/musician to fuse jazz with funk and hip-hop rhythms. Some of the musicians who influenced his early musical career include Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Charlie Christian, George Benson and Kenny Burrell. Meet singer/songwriter and jazz guitarist – Ronny Jordan
Born in London, England
Genre: Jazz, Acid Jazz, Smooth Jazz
While many of guitarist Ronny Jordan’s influences played straight jazz, he has made his reputation by fusing jazz with other musical genres. “I’m not ahardnosed jazz purist,” he told Joe Gore in Guitar Player. His involvement in the British funk scene during the 1980s opened his eyes to the possibility of mixing jazz, rap, and pop in daring ways. While some jazz purists resisted Jordan’s progressive thinking, radio audiences embraced early efforts like “After Hours” and a new version of Miles Davis’s “So What.” Besides fusing different styles of music, he also worked to create music that would appeal to both traditional jazz fans and people who liked to dance. “I like jazz the common man can relate to,” Jordan told Fred Shuster in the Los Angeles Daily News. “It has to be music from the heart and soul, of the street. It’s time for a new breed.”
Jamaican parents in 1962, and would later change his name to Jordan in tribute to basketball player Michael Jordan. He began playing the ukulele at four, performing at his father’s Pentecostal Church, and began playing guitar with other musicians at age 15. “What I learned in church was feeling and melody,” Jordan told USA Today. “I still try to use my guitar as a voice.” He was won over by jazz, however, after hearing the sounds of guitarist Wes Montgomery, and would also discover Grant Green, George Benson, and Kenny Burrell. He toldShuster, “When I first heard Benson’s ‘Breezin” on the radio, I flipped. It turned me onto radio-friendly jazz.” But his father disapproved of a musician’s life and encouraged Jordan to earn a business degree in college. Jordan acquiesced, and following college worked a series of “straight jobs” before returning to his first love, jazz guitar.
Jordan’s musical journey would take time, though. He loved jazz, but he had also grown up listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire, P-Funk, and Steely Dan. “I loved jazz,” he told Gore, “but I also liked funky stuff like Sly and the Family Stone, P-Funk, Tower of Power, Prince. I was split down the middle.” In 1980 he listened to his first hip-hop record. By the mid-1980s he had become a professional musician. “Bands like Parliament were coming over [to Britain],” Jordan told Nicky Baxter on the Metro Active website, “and they had a huge influence on musicians. I know I was [influenced].” These musical experiences led him to combine jazz and funk, and for the next ten years he experimented with variations on these styles. He told Baxter, “I’ve always played what I like, even when I was playing in clubs and no one was really paying attention.”
In 1991 Jordan signed with Universal Island. He released his first album, The Antidote, on 4th and Broadway (part of Universal Island) in 1992, and followed with The Quiet Revolution in 1993 and Light to Dark in 1996. Jordan first came to the public’s attention with a recording of Miles Davis’s “So What,” included on The Antidote. Baxter wrote that “the single proved to be a definitive statement in the still-embryonic acid-jazz genre.” The instrumental also reached the British top 40, as well as number ten on contemporary jazz charts in the United States. Although each of his first three albums provided Jordan with more exposure, he would require more time to completely integrate his ideas.
The next stage of his career, however, would have to wait. In the mid-1990s, following the release of Light and Dark, Jordan’s relationship with Island Records became strained. He disagreed with the label over marketing strategies, and as a result did not release a new record for four years. Even after signing a new contract, he was forced to re-record a number of works in progress because of past contractual agreements.
The wait was more than worth it for Jordan’s fans. In 1999 he released his fourth album, A Brighter Day, in which he added a touch of daring to his distinct jazz fusion. “After being recognized by the entire jazz funk scene as number one,” noted the Freestyle website, “the fact that this album is being released on the legendary Blue Note label shows that the entire jazz scene has recognized the man’s talent.” But recording for jazz’s most prestigious label in no way signaled a conservative approach. Instead, Jordan teamed up with hip-hop activist Mos Def, producer DJ Spinna, and singer Jill Jones to create a fresh, innovative sound based in Latin and Indian music and combined with hip-hop. “I like to work with people who you normally wouldn’t find working in a [jazz] environment,” he told the VH1 website, “because what you find is that you can get surprises.” A Brighter Day also received a Grammy nomination.
Jordan followed with Off the Record in 2001, once again blending hip-hop, blues, and soul. “Off the Record is not a smooth jazz album, nor is it a straight ahead album,” Jordan told the website Jazz Online. “It’s a sugar free, urban sounding record.” In 2003 Jordan released At Last on N2K, and he continued to push boundaries. Thom Jurek in All Music Guide noted, “This is easily Jordan’s most consistent date as well as his most mature compositionally, musically, and soulfully. At Last is the summer record of 2003.”
Jordan’s work has been responsible for taking jazz in new directions, and he has also reasserted the guitar’s influence in the field of jazz. Jason Ankeny wrote in All Music Guide, “One of the acid jazz movement’s most prominent guitarists, Jordan is widely credited with returning the instrument to its rightful place as a major force in modern-day jazz.”
Jordan has maintained an active performance schedule, and has toured Africa, Asia, and Austria, along with a steady stream of gigs in the United States. For ten years he has fought an uphill battle against his music being labeled “smooth jazz” and “acid jazz.” “I’m a maverick,” Jordan told Jim Bessman in Billboard. “There’s acid-jazz, straight-ahead acid-jazz, new swing jazz. … I can name a dozen labels. They’re just the latest members of the large family known as jazz, and in five years there will be something else. I look at my music as ‘eternal music,’ and don’t want to be bogged down by labels.”
by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr.
Biographical information courtesy of Musician Guide