The Miles Davis standard “So What” has been a modal jazz touchstone for 55 years, providing the harmonic canvas for myriad improvisations and reinterpretations.
Yet the tune only entered the British charts in February 1992, a few months after Davis’s death, when the British guitarist Ronny Jordan recorded a funky version showcasing his bright, crisp and fluid playing over a backing track combining traditional jazz instruments and drum programming.
Released at the height of the acid jazz movement, Jordan’s take on “So What” became a dancefloor favourite and helped launch the guitarist internationally. The Antidote, his debut for Island, and his 1993 follow-up The Quiet Revolution, both sold 100,000 copies in the US, where he straddled the R&B and smooth jazz stations with a contemporary sound he described as “urban jazz ... Really big drum loops with fat grooves”.
Dominant throughout the jazz-rock era of the 1970s with John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Coryell, the guitar had been subsumed back into the backline but Jordan restored the instrument to prominence in the jazz world.
Jordan enjoyed collaborating with DJs and rap and soul acts, and broadened his fanbase with the Bad Brothers mix album and a guest appearance alongside the British vocalist D C Lee on “No Time To Play”, a UK Top 30 single in 1993. The next year Guru and Jordan teamed up with trumpeter Donald Byrd for “Time Is Moving On”, the opening track on Stolen Moments: Red Hot+Cool, the fifth of the Red Hot Aids Benefit Series of compilations.
In 2000 A Brighter Day, the first of two albums Jordan made for Blue Note, featured Mos Def on the title track and was Grammy-nominated in the Best Contemporary Jazz album category. The same year, Jordan won a Mobo award for Best Jazz Act and gained a new audience when “The Jackal”, a track from The Quiet Revolution sung by Dana Bryant, was lip-synched by the actress Allison Janney in an episode of The West Wing.
He was the second of seven children of Jamaican parents who had moved to London. Following his mother’s death he was brought up by his father, a church deacon, and wasn’t allowed to listen to reggae at home, though he grew up with the Beatles, Motown, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke. He began playing the ukulele as a child and by the late 1960s was backing gospel singers in church.
Switching to guitar in his teens he drifted towards jazz, influenced by players like Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery – and George Benson, who would guest with him during a memorable show at London’s Jazz Café in 2010. He remained a mainstay on the circuit until 2012, when he gave concerts in Japan, France, Spain and Italy. The cause of his death was not disclosed by his family.
Ronald Laurence Albert Simpson (Ronny Jordan), guitarist, songwriter and producer: born London 29 November 1962; died London 13 January 2014.