By Al Kaufman
Jeff Beck loves and respects the guitar too much to just hack out albums when he does not feel inspired. While other guitar legends, such as Eric Clapton or B.B. King, are content to rehash old material or team up with upstarts to put out new product, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Beck just goes out and works on cars until inspiration strikes. Thus Emotion and Commotion comes seven years after Beck’s last studio album, Jeff. It is well worth the wait.
Emotion and Commotion brings a more mature Jeff Beck, but in this case “mature” is not a synonym for “boring.” As he writes on his liner notes, he is now content to let “other people be a part of the music rather than have full-shred guitar on every track.” Beck understands that a bend of a note here or a staccato blast there can be just as effective as an all out wail. The reason he often does not include a vocalist on his songs is because his guitar does the singing.
Case in point: Emotion and Commotion opens with “Corpus Christi Carol,” a song perfectly suited for Jeff Buckley’s beautifully romantic vocals. With his Stratocaster, Beck achieves the same simplicity and beauty, making words unnecessary. Of course, Beck then follows that with “Hammerhead,” an all out wah-wah fest that he wrote with keyboardist Jason Rebello as a sort of homage to his friend, keyboardist and “Miami Vice Theme” songwriter, Jan Hammer.
Then there’s Puccini’s operatic “Nessun Dorma,” which Beck recorded with a full orchestra. This time, his guitar takes on the role of tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Or how about “Over the Rainbow,” where he captures Judy Garland’s trembling vibrato with his six strings? While not a technically difficult song, Beck understands just how to make the simple melody sound stunning.
For those who worry that Beck is slipping into adult contemporary mode with his choice of covers, he offers some choice nuggets in addition to “Hammerhead.” “There’s No Other Me” offers up some nice riffs, and Joss Stone sings her bluesy little heart out on it. She fares less well on “I Put a Spell on You.” Try as she might, she cannot elicit the passion of a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Imelda May, the vocalist on another Jeff Buckley cover, “Lilac Wine,” should appeal to people who like the sensual jazz stylings of Dianna Krall. Beck and orchestra stay in the shadows and let May shimmer and shine.
Beck also incorporates English sensation Olivia Safe, who is as comfortable singing electronica as she is singing opera, on two tracks. Her dynamic, wordless performance on the closing cut, “Elegy for Dunkirk,” is haunting. In her, Beck has found a kindred spirit; a person who appreciates good music and wants to perform it, no matter the genre.
Jeff Beck plays Chastain Park Amphitheatre June 11. Get tickets here.