By Brian Soergel
Over the course of five CDs, guitarist Chris Standring has distinguished himself in the contemporary jazz realm with adventurous and lyrical compositions leavened with pure-pop perfection, dazzling guitar solos and thick beats. His jazz leanings and riffs have always been in the foreground, but he expanded his sound with rock, blues, R&B and electronic elements.
With his sixth CD, Blue Bolero, Standring returns with a left-turning musical project so daring in its scope but still so true to his sound that it's destined to be one of the year's most-discussed projects, while certainly sure to be remembered in years to come as a highlight of the guitarist's works. He's taking a chance with Blue Bolero, but it's one his fans will certainly embrace as they follow Standring's ever-evolving career. "I think this one is probably the most honest CD I have recorded so far," Standring says. "I didn't care about commercial constraints. I didn't care about having special guest performers on the album for the sake of creating a sales and marketing perception. Everyone who performed on this CD was there because I felt they were the absolute best to help realize this album."
Blue Bolero, to be released March 2, 2010 on the Ultimate Vibe Recordings label, is a CD that retains Standring's familiar pop hooks while liberally tying it all together with orchestral elements. At the same time, the robust sonic landscape digs deep into jazz territory with an organic trio powered by Standring, drummer Dave Karasony and upright bassist Larry Steen. "It's been my ambition for years to record an album with an orchestra," Standring says, who spent a year and a half fleshing and refining the CD. "Every time I thought I was finished, I thought about what I could do to make it better. I really pushed myself to the edge with orchestration and arranging. I didn't want to make the music too dark and windswept - overall it is certainly meant to be fun - but at the same time it has musical elements that reflect my musical training, influences and cultural surroundings. The music is based around several themes and represents a very reflective mood throughout."
One particular theme is grandly cinematic, and Blue Bolero represents, says Standring, the journey he took as a musically driven youngster to the person he is today. Musically, it traces his life from his upbringing on a farm in England, making a move to London and finally his relocation to Los Angeles. As soon as Standring began exploring orchestral samples, he created what became the CD's first track, the more than eight-minute "Overture," with three distinct sections including some swinging jazz. After that point, the drive to realize a wholly thematic project became Standring's all-consuming passion.
The title track, "Blue Bolero," is Standring's take on the Spanish bolero, another of the CD's themes, its steadily building beat riding under Standring's guitar and orchestration, Steen's acoustic bass and the violin of Barbara Porter. Like Ravel's celebrated "Bolero," it builds to a musical climax. "This is the first song on the CD that featured a minor chord with a major seventh added to it, and it's something that unifies the whole project," Standring says. "It's a particularly dark-sounding chord, and one that film composers like to pull out from time to time due to its cinematic qualities."
"Please Mind the Gap," which features orchestration and exquisite alto flute solo playing by Katisse Buckingham, takes its name from the London Underground train system and recalls Standring's adventures during trips to the big city. It's fast-moving and upbeat, and along with a later track called "Sensual Overload," is reminiscent of Standring's many bright and bouncy hit pop jazz singles. "Please Mind the Gap's" bookend is found with "Fast Train to Everywhere," this one marked by its swinging rhythm and Porter's sweeping violin playing.
Standring remembers his classical guitar training with "Regarding Tetchwick," a solo-guitar interlude where his fingers can be heard running up and down the fretboard, the gentle sound of rain his only accompaniment. As with "On Second Thoughts" and "At the End of the Day," it proves that the musician's skills aren't limited to the electric guitar. The same can be said for the first radio single, "Bossa Blue," which has Standring's nylon-string guitar soloing over a Latin rhythm. This intoxicating song also has a vocal hook in the chorus: Standring sings with the aid of vocal effects, and it adds a subtle touch of jazz vocalese.
"Contemplation" is a jazzy number with swishing drum-brushes, upright bass and Standring's archtop jazz guitar displaying its full dynamic. It reflects Standring's many hours practicing his guitar alone; outside the happy cries of children are heard. "On my past more funky albums I have certainly learned how to compete with a loud band, but often at a cost," he says. "Playing a song like this one really enables the instrument to breathe and I can take time and space to make the instrument sing. It's a subtlety that one favors with age and experience, I think."
"Lost in Angels" gets it title from Standring's early days in Los Angeles, a stranger in a strange land grappling with choices and opportunities. It's the darkest and most mysterious number on the CD, an almost entirely orchestral piece that captures the noir of the city while also tying into the bolero theme with Karasony's snare drum and Porter's sawing violin strokes. The mood is lightened with "March of the Bowler Hats," a chug-a-lug of a song that matches the syncopation of the brisk gait of English city gentlemen who give the song its title.
"Bolero Finale" ties the thematic elements of Blue Bolero together. "I took a melody from the original 'Bolero' theme and changed the key, took the tempo up and made it into a jazz waltz," Standring says. "This last piece is a celebration of life, where the true climax of the song happens in the last section of the guitar solo before the melody comes around again."
If Blue Bolero sheds some musical light on Standring's journey, regular words can flesh things out a bit. After playing his solitary classical guitar on the Aylesbury farm, he later studied at the London College of Music and wrote music for the BBC before moving to Los Angeles in February of 1991. That's where Standring first hooked up with Rodney Lee, as they both were playing with Lauren Christy, a U.K. singer who had also moved to Southern California. (Lee has been on all of Standring's CDs, and on Blue Bolero returns with a Fender Rhodes solo on "Overture.") In 1996, Standring and Lee released an acid-jazz CD by their group Solar System on Sonic Groove Records. The CD, featuring vocal covers of "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Me & Mrs. Jones," introduced Standring's vibey instrumental tunes to the world.
In 1998 Standring made his solo debut with Velvet, featuring the hit "Cool Shades," the first of two CDs that he'd record for Instinct Records. The second, 2000's Hip Sway, offered the smooth jazz radio single of the same name. His next album, 2003's Groovalicious, delivered the hits "Ain't Mad Atcha" and "Miss Downtown Sugar Girl." In 2006, Standring's Soul Express - which featured the Paul Brown-produced smash hit "I Can't Help Myself" - was an instant hit with fans and critics alike. It was followed by Love & Paragraphs in 2008, which featured the upbeat hit single of the same name that was created into a video that has had almost 20,000 hits on YouTube. Art Good named Love & Paragraphs Jazztrax best song of 2008.
As his exposure has grown, Standring has become a fixture on the contemporary jazz touring scene, performing solo dates and with package attractions such as the popular Guitars and Saxes. He's performed at the prestigious Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival many times, and he created his own tour called 'Soul Express' featuring among others, legendary keyboardist Jeff Lorber and R&B vocalist Jody Watley.
Even though Standring stays busy with touring and recording new music, he's known for his spirit of giving back to fellow musicians. With this in mind, he founded A&R Online (aandronline.com), a place for aspiring musicians to get their music heard and to learn about the industry. In 2006, Standring unveiled his latest guitar-lesson course offered on CD-ROM, Guitar Made Simple (guitarmadesimple.com). The home-study course is designed for beginning and intermediate guitar players and has 12 chapters covering everything from how to hold the guitar and learning chords to more complex procedures. "It's different than others simply because it's my own personal method," he says. "With every example you can click to hear me play, and there are lots of videos where you can see me playing." That course follows an earlier one Standring created called Play What You Hear.
"It has been a long ambitious journey," Standring says. "Sometimes I wonder if life is easier when one has fewer ambitions. Perhaps there is less disappointment and smelling the roses is a little easier. But when I look back, at the end of the day, I know I made all the right moves. There are no rules of course, we make our own, and that is the wonderful thing about life. People are as unique as their personal journeys."
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