Accordingly, then, “Blow By Blow” featured an 18-year-old drummer, a steady bass player who’d made his living in the studio, and old reliable Max Middleton returning on keyboards. Co-writing a great deal of the material on the album with Jeff, Max proved the catalyst that propelled Jeff in this new, untested direction. The album, significantly, leans heavily towards jazz-funk, but retains a tangible rock flavor. Jeff indulged his desire to pay homage to a couple of his idols, Roy Buchanan and Stevie Wonder. and in general seemed to finally be doing what he really wanted. In fact, the only real problem with “Blow By Blow” was that some of the material was a bit riffy; as immaculate an arranger and player as Jeff Beck is. he’s not a very good songwriter, a shortcoming of which he’s quite aware. Yet the mood and intent of “Blow By Blow” almost required that Jeff have a heavy involvement with the writing. And even at that, some of the songs Jeff either wrote or co-wrote contain the essence of what Jeff Beck on stage is all about. (‘Scatterbrain’ and ‘Constipated Duck’ are probably the two best examples of this.)
“Blow By Blow,” when released, sold more units faster than anything Jeff had ever recorded previously, and the question of his return to the stage now hung in the air. At this point, it’s important to note that Jeff has never been completely sure of his audience; given the wide range of styles he’s played. it’s almost impossible to define just why a particular audience has turned up to see him. But the urge to perform was on him again. and he set about forming a band to tour and support the album. He gathered up Max (of course), Bernard Purdie (drums), and Wilbur Bascomb (bass), and made ready for the road. I was fortunate enough to witness a rehearsal of this band just before their first date, and while Jeff looked ready, he admitted afterward that it would take a bit of luck to put the album across successfully on stage.
The results, as they say, are history; Jeff astounded both audiences and critics alike, and everyone was happy. Except Jeff. He wasn’t totally enamoured with being co-billed with John McLaughlin, even though on the surface it seemed a good idea. And, of course, he was worried about a follow-up to “Blow By Blow”; after all. “Blow By Blow” had been his first gold album, and the old spectre of having a certain something expected of him next time ’round was haunting Jeff again.
However. having made the decision to seek fresh input more frequently. and also finding himself moving closer to jazz, Jeff looked for both new people and new directions for his next album. The inspiration came from Jan Hammer and Michael Walden, players who both challenged and excited Jeff. Jan wrote one number for Jeff, ‘Blue Wind,’ but was a bit reluctant to join Jeff on the road. He confessed to feeling a mite uncomfortable with the material on “Blow By Blow,” and not at all sure he wanted to play that style. This suited Jeff just fine, who, after all. was after a new direction; Michael Walden had written four numbers for “Wired,” and all were more away from rock and closer to that fuzzily-defined area known as ‘jazz-rock.’
For “Wired,” Jeff concentrated exclusively on arranging and playing. writing nothing. Again under the guiding hands of George Martin, “Wired” presented yet another new Jeff Beck to the world, a Jeff Beck as different from the one on “Blow By Blow” as the one on “Rough And Ready” was from the one on “Beck-Ola.” Exhibiting a much greater empathy for jazz-rock, Jeff made use of Richard Bailey, Max Middleton and Wilbur Bascomb from “Blow By Blow,” but it was his playing with Narada Michael Walden and Jan Hammer that proved the spark.
Jan Hammer’s group had just released their own album, but were having some difficulty getting gigs. Jeff solved both their employment difficulties and his own live band problem by joining forces with Jan’s band. The combination clicked; they’ve been working steadily (and winning smash reviews) since June, all of which is getting Jeff off tremendously, and may even produce a live album.
It’s become a well-established fact by now that predicting Jeff Beck is a futile task; how can one determine in advance what an individual is going to do when the individual himself hasn’t a clue? I spoke with Jeff recently after his concert here in Boston, and he kinda surprised me by saying that even now he’s still not completely sure that he’s playing exactly what he wants. He did say that further exploration of the jazz-rock fusion is the way he feels inclined to go, but on the other hand. at the concert earlier in the evening, he returned for his encore and told a cheering crowd, “I guess there’s no getting away from it. I’m still a rock ‘n’ roll guitarist.”
So who can tell where Jeffs notes will lead him next? He’s finally managed, after more than ten years time, to sort out his priorities musically, and at least now he’s got some kind of bearing. He’s unique in that he will remain popular with a public that has now come to expect only excellent music from Jeff. nothing more. Fair enough, it’s the very least Jeff expects from himself. There won’t be any more cold ashes of broken dreams/bands around Jeff; instead, there’s only the glowing coals of a creative fire that now seems self-feeding. Jeffs private search for himself will continue, and I, for one, hope that it will be a long search. —Jim Kozlowski