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An interview with Jeff Beck 

Jeff Beck's new album, Emotion & Commotion, released in April, will get its share of attention for the fact that Joss Stone and Imelda May provide vocals. Why? Doubtless because those singers are hot right now, but also because one has come to expect mostly instrumental work from Beck.

"Taking them away from their comfort zones and putting them on my record just seemed like an attractive thing to do," Beck said of his decision to include Stone and May. "I think that's what music is all about, jumping from something you're safe with to something you're not quite familiar with and maybe just finding another little vibe about yourself. They did that."

Beck has learned a few things about stepping into new situations over the course of a career that dates back more than four decades.

His first solo efforts after leaving the British group the Yardbirds were blues-rock affairs— Truth and Beck-Ola — that featured a young Rod Stewart on vocals. In the mid-1970s, Beck ventured into jazz fusion on his albums Blow By Blow and Wired. More recently, Beck has mixed electronic elements with rock and jazz on albums like 1999's Who Else! and 2001s You Had It Coming.

On Emotion & Commotion, Beck returns to jazz fusion for a few numbers, such as "Hammerhead" and "Never Alone." But Stone's contributions are rooted in the blues. One of the most raw and powerful singers going today, Stone purrs and moans her way through a cover of "I Put A Spell On You" and cuts loose on the stormy rocker "There's No Other Me."

Even more intriguing are tracks like "Elegy For Dunkirk" and "Nessun Dorma" which find Beck bridging classical music and rock.

Formless freeform

According to Beck, there was no firm plan going into Emotion & Commotion to venture into classical music or to make vocal tracks a key facet of the CD. In fact, Beck didn't have much of a plan at all when he headed into the studio.

"I did take a big sack full of CDs with me, and the producer (Steve Lipson) said let's not bother with those," he said. "So I lugged them up to London for nothing. (Lipson said) I want to hear what you want to do. Let's just not pirate other type songs right away. Let's just see what we can come up with for a game plan. So I scribbled down a few notes on a blackboard and it grew from there.

Beck, who in 2009 was inducted as a solo artist into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has long been viewed as one of rock's premier guitarists. He's built a loyal audience that has consistently allowed him to headline theaters and large clubs. But he's never had a major hit single or album.

The lack of a blockbuster song or album, though, has had its artistic advantages, Beck said.

"I'm sort of knocking on doors and inviting my way into different musical rooms, and see what I can come up with," he said. "I just think the one thing that I've got, which I cherish, is that freedom to do that. Reflecting back to not having massive quadruple platinum albums in middle of the road or general Joe Q. Public arenas, that enables me to explore and present my findings. And I have fun doing it. So who's complaining?"

Giants roam the Earth

Beck certainly wasn't complaining when he had the opportunity in February to open five shows for Eric Clapton, and then join Clapton on stage for an extended encore.

"We did 45 minutes to establish who I was within Eric's audience," Beck said. "So I'm playing largely to Eric Clapton people. It worked fine for me. I was full of gratitude for that, to get my music across to his people. Then there was a turn-around, and he comes back on to do his 45 minutes. Then we did 35 or 40 minutes together. So it was triple show, really I suppose, very good fun."

Clapton and Beck, of course, share some notable history. When Clapton left the Yardbirds in 1965, Beck was replaced him on guitar. During Beck's tenure, the band recorded several of its most famous songs, including "Heart Full of Soul," "Shapes of Things" and "I'm A Man."

After the Yardbirds, the career paths of the two guitarists diverged widely, with Clapton moving on to Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos before launching his highly successful solo career.

Because of their shared history in the Yardbirds and their places near the top of virtually any list of all-time great rock guitarists, some anticipated something of a guitar showdown during the tour. Beck said there was no such atmosphere.

"No, because Eric shines playing the blues. To me, you don't go there," he said. "I do one blues, which is a full-on, it starts off moody and it builds into hysteria. So that's my version of his kind of music. But I don't mess with Eric, and he doesn't get in my way with my style. We've both developed very, very distinguished styles. So whoever wants to put us in a boxing ring together is slightly misguided. Why not enjoy both?"

Beck and Clapton will cross paths again June 26 when Beck will play Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago. In the meantime, Beck and his group have a busy slate of headline shows that will keep them on the road for most of the year.

Beck said he is still toying with the set list and running order of songs, but he offered a few hints about what fans can expect.

"It's a 90-minute show, and we've got everything in there that we think works," he said. "We've got a few fine tuning bits to do, but there are little sections from every part of my career."

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