By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Guitar wizard Jeff Beck’s career spans six decades and encompasses rock, fusion, prog rock, rockabilly, techno and blues.
So when Beck says he prefers to experiment in different styles, it’s a bit like Mick Jagger saying he likes groupies.
There are few times on Beck’s 17 studio albums where he dips into as many styles as he has on his latest release, “Emotion and Commotion.”
The record includes performances with a full orchestra, collaborations with Irish, soul and opera singers and a pair of tributes to the late Jeff Buckley.
“I try not to get stuck on something or I’ll end up doing four albums of the same thing. I dabble,” Beck said in a recent telephone interview while on tour in Australia.
While Beck covers the gamut, his latest album was largely the product of good-luck accidents. Taking a cue from his fellow guitarists in the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck appears with an orchestra on several pieces, including Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma” and an arrangement of “Corpus Christi Carol,” recorded in tribute to Buckley.
“The whole idea of me doing classical numbers started five or six years ago,” Beck said. “I was trying to get my guitar to sound like a voice in an orchestra.”
The initial result — an interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 — remains unreleased, but it encouraged Beck to keep trying.
“It was a hell of a lot of work for it to just be lying around, but (Mahler’s Fifth) allowed me to compromise,” Beck said. “I didn’t want to take an entire album’s worth to EMI Classics, because I couldn’t see a career jumping on orchestra stages every night with me as conductor. So we just have a taste.”
Beck unintentionally mirrored another aspect of Clapton’s career when he covered “Over the Rainbow.” Clapton performed the number on his 2001 tour, but Beck said he has no intention of hearing Clapton’s interpretation “because I don’t want to realize any similarity.
“I used to watch weepy movies, genuine quality films by Busby Berkeley, where all of a sudden a band kicks in and music would happen,” Beck said. “When I heard that song, it was one of the most beautiful performances.”
The lush orchestral numbers are countered by a pair of songs featuring Joss Stone on vocals, and several hard-rocking cuts with his old touring band, including young British bass savant Tal Wilkenfeld.
On “Lilac Wine,” a second tribute to Buckley, Beck is joined by Imelda May on the mic.
“This is how my life is,” Beck said. “I meet people or hear about them, and then I find out they’re available when I look into them. Imelda and Joss are two of the most beautiful women ever, and they fancy working with me, so who’s going to say no?”
“Emotion and Commotion” closes with a song from the Oscar-winning score to “Atonement.” Beck had been working with an orchestra on the piece, when producer Steve Lipson told him opera singer Olivia Safe was recording next door.
“We played her ‘Elegy for Dunkirk,’ and she completely flipped out. The next thing I know, she’s sitting in on it,” Beck said. “I was missing some element on my own. The performance is much deeper, thanks to her.”
The tributes to Buckley were also serendipitous. Beck wasn’t familiar with the late singer-songwriter until someone slipped him a CD on the way out of a party.
Beck said he was incredibly moved by Buckley’s singing and wanted to interpret that voice on the guitar.
“Without any design, these songs slid into place,” he said. “At first we were going to do ‘Hallelujah,’ but that song has become very popular, so we decided against it.”
Before embarking on his latest tour, Beck paired with Clapton for a handful of dates in Japan. The shows featured solo sets from each guitarist and culminated with a jam.
“Eric and I have always been linked through the Yardbirds, but we always seem to brush casually past each other,” Beck said. “I know people were hoping we’d compete to see who’s better, but I’ve always thought it looks stupid to try and out-shred someone. Eric would hit me with a certain style of music, and then it’s up to me to respond. It’s a meeting of two people, not a guitar contest.”
While Beck’s tour will include about half of the songs from “Emotion and Commotion,” it will feature none of the guest musicians, including Wilkenfeld.
However, the tour has reunited Beck with drummer Narada Michael Walden, who played on Beck’s 1976 album “Wired.” Walden has since produced “The Bodyguard” soundtrack, wrote the No. 1 hit “Freeway of Love” for Aretha Franklin and has penned or produced other chart-toppers for Mariah Carey, Diana Ross, Starship and Al Jarreau.
“I had to replace the rhythm section because they had other commitments,” Beck said. “Tal had her own project to do, which she delayed while she was playing with me. I hesitated to call Narada because I knew how busy he was, but he said I should have called 30 years ago. He was waiting for the call.”
Review: B.B. King and Buddy Guy
The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part One): The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues