Jeff Beck’s 2009 live album and DVD Live At Ronnie Scott’s suggested the guitar maestro, now in the fifth decade of a remarkable career, remained at the very top of his game. The passion and subtlety and creativity of his playing had never been greater. Still, the evidence was somewhat scarce; the deliberate Beck has produced just eight solo albums over the course of the past 30 years, while maintaining and even growing his reputation as one of the most talented guitarists alive and playing. In a virtual personal speed record, the very next year here comes Beck again, delivering the new studio album Emotion And Commotion.
As Beck has done often in recent years, here he mixes instrumental tunes with tunes where he is joined by a vocalist – though he blurs the boundary a bit by overgenerously listing Olivia Safe as featured vocalist on two tracks where she simply adds a few wordless vocal textures to tracks that are otherwise instrumentals. On this album, as on Live At Ronnie Scott’s, all of Beck’s vocal accompanists are female; he’s joined by Janis Joplin acolyte Joss Stone on two tracks, while the Jeff Buckley favorite “Lilac Wine” is sung by Imelda May.
The other intriguing aspect of this album is the incorporation of an orchestra. We’ve seen all sorts of rock and jazz artists try working with an orchestra over the years, often with mixed results. In Beck’s hands, though, the experience becomes almost seamless, as his omnivorous musical tastes and world-class arranging sensibilities ensure the orchestra is incorporated only where it makes sense to do so, and expertly there.
Once the music starts, you’re immediately reminded that the thing Beck does better than just about anyone in the world is to pull an amazing range of tones out of his instrument. His opening instrumental take on another Jeff Buckley tune, “Corpus Christi Carol,” is really just a series of very gently, precisely played notes with a restrained, tasteful string section underneath, but the purity and expressiveness of the notes Beck coaxes out of his guitar is stunning. It feels like a sound painting, and a Monet or a Van Gogh at that.
That supple overture fades right into “Hammerhead,” which starts with Beck wrenching a dirty, dirty blues riff from the bowels of his instrument, making his axe virtually talk to you in low, guttural tones. For thirty seconds, at least -- after that intro, the song explodes into a rampaging riff that’s doubled and tripled by the orchestra and hits like a tidal wave. Then the strings fall back, leaving bass and drums to support Beck as he produces moaning, menacing tones in between the choruses, where the strings come back to hit full force again and again. The sounds he wrings out of his guitar on the solos are unbelievable; he creates incredible effects and wild little squeals, but he does it all with tremendous feel. He’s not just a technician or a gymnast, he paints with his guitar, putting emotion and artistry into every sonic brushstroke.
“Never Alone” is much more restrained, a very pretty mid-tempo tune in which Beck carves little sonic figures with his guitar. There’s no orchestra but the track doesn’t need anything more than what’s there, which is also typical of Beck -- he recognizes what a song needs and gives it nothing more or less.
The latter trait is in evidence again when he takes on the iconic “Over The Rainbow,” presenting it with nothing but his guitar and strings providing a foundation behind him. Beck literally sings Judy Garland’s vocals with his guitar – and it sounds incredible as he catches every nuance of Garland’s original performance. Beck also comments in the liner notes about why Garland’s rendition of the song was so compelling – her vibrato was actually unsteady, lending extra vulnerability and emotion to her performance. Mr. Beck can hold the notes just fine, but the subtlety and nuance and remarkable beauty of his performance of this song is something to behold.
The remaining tracks are equally diverse choices. “I Put A Spell On You” is the classic Screamin’ Jay Hawkins grinder with Joss Stone in full blues wail. It’s well-performed but somewhat shocking in context, right after “Over The Rainbow.” “Lilac Wine” is played as a nightclub jazz song, with vocals over orchestra for most of the track, though Beck comes through at the end to deliver a substantial and very tasteful, rather George Benson-esque solo. “Serene” is what it says it is, much like “Never Alone” in the painterly quality of Beck’s playing.
“Nessun Dorma” finds Beck’s 360-degree musical interests in play again as he takes another vocal composition – this time from a Puccini opera – and substitutes his guitar for the vocal line, “singing” over the orchestra. I wouldn’t call this one an unqualified success, but there are some undeniably gorgeous moments when he takes his guitar right up to the sky with the orchestra for the climactic notes.
Just for the sake of contrast, next cut “There’s No Other Me” is a bluesy screamer with Joss Stone doing her grittiest wails while Beck again takes the path of restraint and tastefulness, conjuring spooky, otherworldly blues licks out of his guitar. Closer “Elegy For Dunkirk” is fittingly elegiac, if rather subdued finish.
It takes a musical mind with the ambition and ability of a Jeff Beck to put Jeff Buckley, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Puccini, an orchestra, a jazz-rock band, and a belting blues vocalist in the same room and have the results sound, not like an utter mish-mash of clashing styles, but like a kaleidoscopic portrait of a musician in the absolute prime of his artistic life. Whatever it might lack in continuity or coherence, Emotion And Commotion makes up for with sheer artistry and amazing, amazing musicianship.
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