From a purely promotional standpoint, Jeff Beck's first studio album in seven years couldn't have had a better setup.
Emotion & Commotion comes on the heels of a series of high-profile live appearances with fellow guitar great and ex-Yardbird Eric Clapton, and last fall's star-studded 25th Anniversary concerts for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
It also follows last year's Performing This Week… Live At Ronnie Scott's — an amazing live concert document captured during Beck's residency at the venerable jazz and blues club. Backed by his great band including drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, keyboardist Jason Rebello, and bass prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld, Jeff Beck tore the house down at this show, particularly during a stunning version of the Beatles' classic "A Day In The Life."
You'd almost think the guy was mounting a comeback or something — except that Jeff Beck has never really been away. Although he is known nearly as much for the long gaps between his recordings as he is for being one of the two or three best guitarists on the planet, when Jeff Beck drops a new album people just tend to take notice.
Beck's albums don't just serve as reminders that he is one of the best in the world at what he does though. They also tend to reset the bar just that much higher for the rest of the pack. Perhaps because of their infrequency, albums like Blow By Blow or even the more recent Ronnie Scott's set have often been characterized by their brief, explosive bursts of stunning, and for my money anyway, quite unmatched guitar goodness.
Beck's solos just have this way of cutting through air like so many shards of shattering glass. The best part about them though, is the way they always leave you salivating for more.
The first thing you notice about the new Emotion & Commotion is that these same type of short, staccato blasts are somewhat less prevalent. But when they do come, they deliver exactly the same dizzying effect of literally knocking you on your tush, only to pick yourself up off the ground to ask, "thank you sir, may I have another?"
On "There's No Other Me" — one of the two tracks here featuring the sultry, soulful vocals of Joss Stone — Beck's guitar takes off into the stratosphere as Stone's superb vocal builds from a haunting cry to a howling, agonized crescendo.
Beck is nothing if not a master of economy here, despite all of the pyro. He accomplishes more with a Strat and a whammy bar in a few seconds, than many guitarists have over the course of their entire careers. For their part, the rhythm section of Colaiuta and especially the always amazing Wilkenfeld provide a bottom so deep it's almost spooky.
Earlier on in the album, Beck takes a page out of the Jimi Hendrix playbook for the "Voodoo Child"-like, wah-wah intro of "Hammerhead," before venturing off into more familiar jazz-rock fusion territory and another round of guitar fireworks. Here again, the solos are kept short and sweet — but will leave your jaw dropping to the floor no less.
On the more sublime sounding "Never Alone," and the Pat Metheny-like "Serene," Beck eschews the flash in favor of building a mood. Here again, his student Wilkenfeld compliments him perfectly on the bass on both tracks. Vocalist Imelda May likewise turns in an understated, but gorgeous-sounding performance on "Lilac Wine," which Beck matches with some equally lovely-sounding guitar flourishes.
In her other appearance on this album, Joss Stone goes from purring like a cat to roaring like a beast on the slowly building "I Put A Spell On You". Meanwhile, Beck lets his guitar simmer in the pot alongside her for the most part, before hitting a full boil near the end.
When Beck is not doing time with Joss Stone and company here, he is backed by a full orchestra on more classical-oriented material like "Elegy For Dunkirk" (with vocalist Olivia Safe), "Nessun Dorma" and even a curious, if ultimately plaintive and satisfying "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."
In that respect, Emotion & Commotion is almost like two albums in one. Although the orchestral interludes tend to be brief, they also represent an interesting and even promising new direction for Jeff Beck — who even at this late stage of the game appears to be continuing to elevate his game as a constantly evolving artist and musician.
But don't take my word for it. The album comes out next Tuesday. In the meantime you can have a listen for yourself. The guitar mechanic has returned to active duty with a stunner.