Saturday, November 1, 2014

Jon Gordon: Finding His Way

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“When Benny Carter and Phil Woods are lining up to play on your record and Joe Lovano's on hand to write an enthusiastic liner-note, it's pretty clear that something is happening. Gordon is young, bright and effortlessly accomplished, with none of the brashness and over-confidence that often come with 'effortless' talent (which of course it ain't). He handles tricky material with a naturalness born of considerable application, ….”

“The move to Criss Cross was good for Gordon, putting him in the way of a growing pool of young, relatively like-minded musicians who are not constrained by fashion, or indeed by retro ideologies, but who are simply dedicated to mainstream jazz.”

Unlike many players of his type, Jon Gordon communicates brilliantly on record and uses the studio with great imagination.”
  • Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

"One thing that's important to me is that I've often been in situations with a lot of older musicians, many of whom were very traditional and I feel really honored about that.  People like Roy Eldridge, Eddie Locke, Red Holloway, Barney Kessel, Doc Cheatham, Jay McShann and others.  I try to be as forward looking as I can be but I don't want to ever lose the central qualities that those guys had and I got to be around."
  • Jon Gordon, alto saxophonist

The subject of young Jazz artists on Gerry Teekens’ Criss Cross label based in The Netherlands was the focus of a recent blog feature about trumpeter Scott Wendholt and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to return to that theme as it also pertains to alto saxophonist, Jon Gordon.

I had a brief introduction to Jon’s playing via keyboardist Mike LeDonne sextet recording for Criss Cross called Soul Mates [Criss 1074], which features Jon on the front line with Ryan Kisor and Joshua Redman.

I liked what I heard and plumped for three Criss Cross CD’s that Jon had out as the leader: Ask Me Now, [Criss 1099], Witness, [Criss 1121] and Along the Way [Criss 1138].

Masterful tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano had this to say about Jon in the opening paragraphs of the insert notes to Ask Me Now:

“This is Jon Gordon's debut recording for Criss Cross Records. For the date he put a band together of some of New York's most exciting and creative musicians of the day: Tim Hagans, trumpet, Bill Charlap, piano, Larry Grenadier on bass and Billy Drummond on drums.

This period right now in 1995 is one of the most inspired periods for jazz I've experienced in New York City since I arrived here in 1976. Since then I've seen and heard a lot of young cats grow in their own music, as well as develop around the world's greatest Jazz Masters that live and work in the New York scene.

Jon Gordon is one of these amazing young musicians I'm speaking of. We first met in 1988 when Jon called me for a lesson. I was doing quite a bit of teaching at the time on the faculties of William Paterson College as well as New York University. I had the chance to have some very intimate musical exchanges with some very inspiring young saxophonists. I'll never forget when Jon came to my loft. He played with such a strong sound and direction. It didn't fee! like a lesson at all! We played music together!”

Using the CD’s title as the basis for a play on words, Joe concludes by stating:

“So if you ask me now, I am saying so, Jon Gordon is a masterful young altoist with an amazing brilliant future ahead of him. We can all be part of it. All we have to do is listen!!!”

Jon Gordon provides an overview of his career and approach to Jazz in an interview that is largely the basis for Ted Panken’s insert notes to Along the Way [Criss 1138]:

"I think we're in a contemplative time in Jazz," says alto saxophonist Jon Gordon while we discuss Along The Way, his third Criss Cross release. "There's no one genius out there, no one Bird or Monk or Coltrane who is forging ahead in a path. So much has happened so quickly, and there are a lot of musicians like me who are just trying to find our way.  I remember seeing a comment by Miles Davis that as a kid he had five or six records in the house, and he'd go hear bands live.  Now you have the whole history of the music. You have indigenous tribal music, Gregorian chant, all this stuff to sort through to find your own voice."

The winner of the 1996 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition continues, "I'm 30, but I feel only in the last five years I've had some recordings that show a sense of my finding my way, as it were."

The Staten Island native's preoccupation with music began even before he picked up an instrument.  His mother Sue's first husband was the baritone saxophonist Bob Gordon, who died in a car accident in 1955, eleven years before Jon's birth.  "It's kind of complicated," he explains, "but when I was a kid, up until the age of 9 or 10, I thought Bob had been my father. To me, in my childhood mind, in shaping my psyche as it were, this jazz saxophone player was Dad to me.  I knew I wanted to get involved with music, but I wasn't sure that's what I wanted to do with my life."

The articulate saxophonist recalls his formative years: "I started playing in junior high school when I was 10 years old, through a very good teacher named Larry Laurenzano. The band at my school was really good for that level -- in fact it was supposed to be one of the top dozen junior high school bands in the country -- and hearing it when I got to school imbued in me a desire to be part of this process of making music.  Larry helped me a lot. At the end of junior high he got me free lessons at the Jewish Community Center on Staten Island with a wonderful teacher named Caesar Di Mauro, a marvelous player who gave me a great foundation on the saxophone.  For instance, he had me play scale exercises, playing in every key, in every interval, seconds through sevenths, which really built my technique.

"After junior high school I attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, which was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life.
The ferryboat ride across New York Harbor is a much greater distance in terms of art and culture than it appears. When I first came there at 13, suddenly I met a Chinese girl playing violin who'd been studying seriously since she was two who could absolutely play the shit out of anything you put in front of her.  I went from playing selections from Rocky for my entrance piece into this world of much greater depth and width.  By the end of my junior year I was a pretty good Classical saxophone player, and won high marks on juries. That enabled me to play with the school orchestra, which gave me a real sense of accomplishment.

"Right around the time I hit 16, though, I fell in love with Jazz. I heard two Phil Woods records, Musique Du Bois and Song of Sisyphus, and they totally flipped me out. That started a one-year odyssey where I followed Phil around to all the clubs and haggled him for a year.  Finally one day, he looked at me and said, 'Well, can you play?” Before I could respond, he said, 'Well, it doesn't matter because you've got to pay me anyway.  Here's my card. Call my wife.' That began a wonderful two-year association where I studied with him maybe 10 or 11 times over a two-year period. After the second lesson, he never accepted a cent!  I think there's something very magical about being able to stand next to one of your heroes, and something happens to you when you hear music live as opposed to hearing records.  I was able to play duets with Phil at a point where he was like my hero, the one guy in the world I would choose to study with.

"I studied with Phil until just before I turned 19, and I grew a lot from being with him.  I'd heard Bird when I was 15 or something, and I don't think I really got it, but once I heard Phil, I got that immediately. Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, then Bird, and then Trane. It was a progression of things, a domino effect; once I absorbed one thing, then I was able to go further and further.  Phil gave me the groundwork for learning how to be an improviser, how to play on Il-V's. When he'd give me information, his attitude was, 'Don't come back until you get it.'  Phil was incredibly supportive when I needed it, but when he wasn't happy with something he would come right out with it."

During this time of intense study, Gordon got an invaluable bandstand apprenticeship with some of New York's living masters after tenor saxophonist Eddie Chamblee, the Lionel Hampton veteran who ran a Saturday jazz brunch at Sweet Basil in Greenwich Village, took him under his wing. Gordon explains: "When I'd just turned 17, just starting to study with Phil, Margaret Davis, a friend of mine whose daughter I went to high school with, told me that people sometimes got to sit in there at Saturdays, and suggested I bring my horn.  Eddie Chamblee is an angel of a human being.  He welcomed me with open arms. When I went up to say hello to him at the end of the gig, he saw my horn and said, 'Well, you come right back and play!' After that, I'd basically go and play half the gig every Saturday for five years.  Eddie's rhythm section was Ernie Hayes on piano, Jimmy Lewis, bass, Belton Evans or Khalil Mahdi on drums; Harold Ousley and Percy France, both wonderful tenor players, would sub for Eddie when he couldn't make it.

"Another one of my musical fathers was Eddie Locke, the drummer. He taught a drummer I used to play with, and he took me and a number of us under his wing.  I actually got to play a concert with Roy Eldridge when I was 20, in 1987, where he was singing, not playing trumpet. That was the thrill of a lifetime, man.  He came in, he played two choruses of the Blues, he spun around to me, pointed the mike at
my bell, stomped his foot and said, 'Blow!!”  I literally felt as though I was 6 inches off the floor at that point.  It was such an incredible experience.  I was kind of just finding out who Roy Eldridge was at that point.  I was just learning about the music. Also, I played with Doc Cheatham on the Sweet Basil Sunday brunch, and at festivals and things.

"Even though I try to write and play in (for lack of a better term) a modern kind of concept, to me there is nothing like somebody playing from their heart and soul. There's nothing hipper than Ben Webster playing a ballad.   That's the feeling I want to hear when I listen to music; it doesn't matter what the style or notes are.”

You can check out Jon’s brilliant alto playing on the following video on which he performs Chick’s Tune with Tim Hagans, trumpet, Bill Charlap, piano, Larry Grenadier on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. If the tune sounds vaguely familiar to your ear, it may be because it is based on the changes to You Stepped Out of A Dream.

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