Listen to this track by acid jazz six-string slinger Ronny Jordan. It’s “So What”, a single as taken from his 1992 record The Antidote. The album was a part of a movement to link post-bop jazz with early ’90s hip hop and R&B of which Ronny Jordan was a major player, based in Britain but making impact in North America too.
This piece is well established in jazz history, originally the centerpiece and lead track to 1959’s Kind of Blue album by Miles Davis, a game-changing release that led jazz into a new era in the 1960s. Jordan wasn’t the first guitarist to cover the song. Grant Green and George Benson would both release versions of the song, two guitarists that Jordan would count among his musical forebears. But, Jordan’s innovation was in bringing it into a new milieu outside of jazz that included hip hop beats and a distinctive R&B feel.
Jazz has always been treated as a sacred trust, by critics and by musicians too. The attempts to marry other music to how jazz is defined has had a mixed history, celebrated by many, and condemned by others. The conflict around it has mostly been about preserving a tradition. But, the attempts to push it in new directions had to do with bringing it new life, in turn by making it culturally available to new audiences.
How is that played out here?
Like a lot of jazz musicians, Ronny Jordan was introduced to music through the church, connecting with gospel music, then R&B, then hip hop. What also impacted him was the jazz-funk movement in Britain by the early ’80s, which is when he took the guitar as a self-taught player into a jazz-oriented direction by the middle of the decade. But, what might be the bigger picture was Jordan’s ability to see the connections between all of these strains of music and synthesize it into something new, even if it took time for record companies to come around to his way of thinking. But, they would; especially after this cut was a hit.
The balance struck here is threefold, with the central motif of the song balanced with a danceable groove, in turn balanced with Jordan’s skill with jazz improvisation. But, what’s really compelling about this version of a classic piece is that it lives and breathes in this new context in such a vital manner. It could have seemed to be contrived, a way of pandering to the purist by how important “So What” is to the jazz canon. But, it’s honest, and it’s an effective bridge between musical worlds that have been born from and continue to feed one another. And it irradiates effervescence besides.
The acid jazz movement would produce a number of classic records of the time, although it would be short-lived. Still, Ronny Jordan would cut a number of albums that would establish his expertise as an innovative jazz guitarist. In January of this year, Jordan would die suddenly at the young age of fifty-two. But, he remains to be an important figure in jazz in the latter years of the 20th century, showing jazz itself to be a musical stream that would have a life outside of a curated art form.
For more information, check out the official Ronny Jordan site, ronnyjordan.com.