2013-05-17

Music As Art

For most people, the name Jennifer Batten doesn't ring any bells. That's unfortunate.

For most of the balance of us, the name Jennifer Batten is associated with the spiked hair and gawdy outfits of a "no-name" female guitarist seen on stage with Michael Jackson, a gig she maintained for about ten years, between 1987 and 1997. We may have seen her play the "Beat It" solo on various live Michael Jackson, but other than that, let's face it: Michael Jackson was never known for writing great guitar music.

Still, he was an artist with the kind of stature that can demand only the best in terms of side musicians, and Batten's on-stage persona was so captivating that curious guitarists growing up at the time, like me, couldn't help but look her up on a then-budding internet. The information we found was sparse, but with the help of some well-placed print ads in the back of guitar magazines, I was able to gather that Jennifer Batten had an interesting solo album out called Momentum, which was only available via mail order, and that she had appeared on a few of those "great guitar player" compilation CDs.

When I finally did hear the recording that made her reputation among guitar players - not the Momentum album, but rather a rock-guitar version of "Flight of the Bumblebee" - I was less than impressed. For one thing, did anyone really need to hear another rock guitar version of "Flight of the Bumblebee?" (I found out later that Batten's version was among the first.) For another thing, I was already knee-deep in the flat-picked stylings of Steve Vai and John Petrucci. Some chick playing gimmicky two-hand tapping stuff just didn't do it for a young musical idiot like myself. So, for years, I figured she was just some woman who managed to get the Michael Jackson gig because female rock guitar players were rare.

Looking back on all this today, I feel stupid, ignorant, and immature.

My favorite guitar player at that time was another 80s rock icon, one who had also recorded a "Bumblebee" song: Nuno Bettencourt. I was fairly obsessed with him, to the point that I dreamed of one day owning his signature guitar: a Washburn N4. Boy, did I ever want one of those.

One day, I went to the local music store and saw that they were selling a rare padauk N4 for a little more than $700. The salesman made a great pitch, and I almost bought it. (To this day, I kick myself for not having done so.) But I was extremely budget conscious and decided to go with something more in my price range. Looking around the showroom, my eyes honed in on another Washburn guitar, the BT-10 Maverick. It had a carved, flamed maple cap on an alder body with a maple neck and a rosewood fretboard. It had dot inlays, but they were off-centered on the fretboard, making them look extra cool. The guitar also featured a Floyd Rose whammy bar and cream binding. What a beauty! And at $400, it was exactly what I was looking for. I bought it in a cherry finish.

The BT-10 would serve as my next exposure to the world of Jennifer Batten. When I got home, I discovered that it was her signature axe. My chauvinistic pride took a hit (I bought a girl's guitar!), but after a while it didn't matter. The guitar was eye-catching and played really well. I took to it quickly, and it served me faithfully as my main guitar for the next five years. I still own it today, and it serves its purpose as my only tremolo-equipped instrument.

So, how could a mere girl, one whose only claims to fame were a gig with Michael Jackson and a two-hand-tapping version of "Flight of the Bumblebee", have her own signature guitar? Worse, how could she have one that I really liked? It didn't make sense to me. From time to time, I'd scan the internet for more information, only to once again discover little more than a link to her Momentum album.

One day, I came across a video of a live performance by guitar legend Jeff Beck playing a cover of "A Day in the Life." In the background was a woman with long blonde hair playing a guitar that looked familiar. Hey, I thought, she's playing a Washburn BT! That's my guitar! Then I realized that I was looking at Jennifer Batten. How did the Michael Jackson guitarist land a gig with one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century?

I quickly opened up a new browser window and searched for all the information I could find about Jennifer Batten: two-hand-tapping wizard, acclaimed guitarist for the Michael Jackson band, with a successful solo career, currently touring with Jeff Beck. It was right about then that I got over my stupid "girls can't play the guitar" mentality and started letting my ears be the final arbiter.

What I soon discovered was a musician with such a stunning level of expressiveness on the instrument, such remarkable virtuosity, but more. Her notes sang, laughed, cried, while each song undulated with a funky mix of jazz, rock, world beat, and clever experimentation. Jennifer Batten's musical world proved to be one marked with an artistry that, frankly, few of even the best players can match.

Suddenly it no longer seemed surprising that this was the artist who had been hand-picked by Jeff Beck for his touring band. Suddenly it was no longer surprising that this was the guitar player who supported the most successful recording artist of all time. Suddenly, it was all obvious. Not to mention the fact that my guitar was suddenly one hundred times cooler than it was mere moments ago.

Batten's music features the kind of maturity to which we all aspire. What I mean by that is that her note choice is impeccable: it's surprising, provocative, powerful, and emotional. Like Jeff Beck, Batten prefers injecting each and every note with an overdose of emotional power to flooding the eardrums with a flurry of shredding. Also like Beck, Batten can produce a flurry of shredding that will blow your head off. If you're looking for an artist who is equally at ease playing fast and slow, one for whom every note is meaningful and important, one who can make every bend and every arpeggio tell a story of its own, look no further than Jennifer Batten.

Stylistically, Batten brings a lot to the table. Casual listeners will immediately notice the heavy dose of modern rock/fusion that serves as the backbone to her material. Comparisons to Greg Howe or Brett Garsed could easily be made. But where those artists tend to draw neatly (and brilliantly) inside the lines, Batten likes to slip and slide along the fretboard, bending and yanking the whammy bar. Because of this, a more attentive listener may draw parallels to Steve Vai, and that influence is certainly palpable on her first record, Above & Beyond. But the truth is that there is more Jeff Beck there than Steve Vai, and this was obvious long before she landed the Beck touring gig. Her subsequent albums are replete with that crying, diving, whammy bar emotion that Beck first made popular. Batten takes it to a whole new level.

For most artists, this would be more than enough ingredients to build a strong body of musical art. Jennifer Batten pushes things further still. Here, the comparisons depart from the masters of instrumental music to the more cutting edge and avante garde guitarists that so seldom make the top of the "best guitarists" lists. Throughout her solo albums, Jennifer Batten peppers her material with sound samples from movies, world music, sample libraries, hip hop beats, and so on. The millennial generation will be inclined to compare that aspect of her music to Buckethead, but the influence actually works in the reverse. Batten's use of samples and guitar special effects draws closer comparisons to Reeves Gabrels, Vernon Reid, Adrian Belew, and Warren Cuccurullo.

As strong as that list of innovators is, the thing that sets Jennifer Batten apart from them is her emphasis on the pure beauty of music. She stops short of cramming too many samples or foreign sounds into her work, favoring masterful clean-toned rhythm guitar tracks that can at times sound like keyboards or organs. Where the others might hover too long on a foreign sound (I once saw Adrian Belew play a guitar synthesizer configured to produce piano sounds, improvising for a good 20 minutes), Batten hints at strangeness just long enough to make the listener fall in love with sound before it gently fades away, only to be replaced by her signature tone and a flurry of virtuosic lead guitar.

The electric guitar was invented in 1931. Since then, it has become the primary musical instrument of the modern world. For better or for worse, the instrument has been so thoroughly explored that it is nearly impossible for anyone in this day and age to sound unique. Despite the odds, a few players have managed to do it through the strength of their imagination, creativity, and virtuosity. There is absolutely no question that Jennifer Batten is one of those players.

Kindly do yourselves the favor of familiarizing yourself with her music. I have selected a YouTube video at random to get you started.