Graded on a Curve:
Jeff Beck,
Blow by Blow

A couple of weeks back I got into a big tussle with some Facebook friends for saying Jeff Beck didn’t impress me and I didn’t much care for anything he’d ever done. I was lying. Some of Beck’s Yardbirds stuff is great, and 1969’s Beck-Ola is a tremendous album and showcase of Beck’s whiz-bang guitar playing.

Exhibits A and B in my case against Jeff Beck are his twin forays into jazz fusion, 1975’s Blow by Blow and 1976’s Wired, both of which strike me as surgically sterile demonstrations of instrumental prowess for its own sake. I’ve searched Blow by Blow high and low for an ounce of soul, but its like that ounce of weed I lost my sophomore year in college. I looked everywhere, but I never found it.

Beck is a guitar player’s wet dream, but where’s the feeling? I wouldn’t go so far as The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, who wrote upon Blow by Blow’s release that Beck “has absolutely nothing to say.” My gripe with Beck is that what he has to say he says in a cold-blooded language clinically detached from any emotion I can recognize. Beck isn’t a man–he’s a master class guitar workshop.

Unlike your best jazz artists, Beck takes no risks on Blow by Blow. And he’s anything but alone. Virtually all jazz fusion artists (the Mahavishnu Orchestra being a notable exception) play it safe, either because they lack the requisite jazz chops or they’re trying to peddle records to a listening public that finds the real thing too challenging. (See Albert Ayler = Zero Album Sales Formula.) Nothing wrong with making a buck, mind you, but in our day and age great “serious” musicians rarely produce “great art” by playing to the cheap seats.

On 1970’a jazz fusion pioneering Bitches Brew, Miles Davis added electric guitar and rock arrangements to his game, bringing together two worlds in a way no one had ever thought to do. He risked everything on a roll of the dice, and his predecessors might have met the challenge and pushed Miles’ musical innovation a step further. Instead they dumbed it down. Hell, even Davis ended up going the pop route in search of popular success, but if anyone deserved it he did. In any event his revolution ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

On Blow by Blow Beck attempts to get by on sheer technique and gets away with it, that is if you’re the type who gets off on that sort of thing. And while the songs (or some of them at least) are funky enough, they’re buffed and lacquered to a glossy sheen–they have zero edge to them. If these are qualities you value in music, you have two good reasons to buy Blow by Blow.

But Blow by Blow leaves me cold. I can’t escape the suspicion that there’s no flesh and blood human being with actual emotions behind that guitar. Joy? Anger? Humor? Playfulness? Love? MIA all. I can listen to Blow by Blow and be impressed, but I can’t listen to it and care. And isn’t that the whole point?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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