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Wycliffe Gordon

If you are a fan of jazz music and you haven't heard of Wycliffe Gordon, you have to get dialed in now! You have probably heard people make statements about other artists such as, "It is almost like he/she makes that instrument talk." Well Gordon does indeed give a human voice to his Edwards 500 bore trombone and he has a lot of fun doing it.

With songs like "Shhhh!!!!" from his most recent release, Cone's Coup from the Criss Cross label and "Take Your Cake Back" from the previously released The Joyride, Gordon adds a theatrical dimension to his music.

"Take Your Cake Back" is based on relationships and conversations that I have had with women from time to time. They would use the phrase, 'You want to have your cake and eat it too.' It (the song) was more about the relationship than the phrase," says Gordon. He says he finds a great deal of humor in the phrase so he tried to infuse the music with the same degree of levity.

The swinging "Take Your Cake Back" opens with female vocalist Heather Rose teasing Gordon with, "Hey daddy how about some of this cake?" Gordon and Rose’s humorous repartee is supported by the fine brass work of Gordon and saxophonist Victor Goines (tenor and soprano). Rose formerly of the group Pure Soul gives an outstanding performance on this song. The multi-talented Goines/Gordon tandem also add the voices of clarinet (Goines) and trombone, trumpet and tuba (all by Gordon) to the album.

Georgia born, Gordon's rich baritone vocals add a dimension not often heard from horn players. He is not an adequate singer, but a very good one. He is not a very good trombonist, but a superbly talented instrumentalist. Whether he is engaging his audience with an old standard or enveloping them with the gauzy sleepy "Speak Low" (Cone's Coup), Gordon is always at the top of his craft. The trombonist's fondness for ample use of the plunger adds yet another quality to the voice of his instrument as he plays "Speak Low."

"The trombone is the instrument that is the closest to the human voice. It is also the most difficult instrument to master. I play all of the brass instruments and a few of the woodwinds, but the vocal possibilities (of the trombone) are tremendous. With or without a plunger, there is so much that you can do. (With) the trombone, the slide moves like the voice when we are talking," says Gordon. He says a good trombonist can emulate the different pitches and lilts of human speech. "No instrument demonstrates the vocal capabilities of the voice more so than the trombone," he says.

Regardless of the genre of music, the composer and artist's ability to create a particular mood for his audience is tantamount to a successful performance. "Unless I am playing solo, the drums and rhythm section have a lot to do with creating the feeling," he says. Pursuing this thought for a moment longer Gordon informs me, "(You need to ask) are you going to play (the drums) with sticks, brushes or mallets? Are you going to play tom-toms or snares? A lot of time we just fish for the proper way to deliver a song. If there is too much motion you might say, 'Let's not play with sticks or let's go to the tom-toms and play with a more rhythmic pattern."

"(With) Duke Ellington's music, he would just leave it up to the musician to create the mood. I have (also) heard that in (Wynton) Marsalis' writing as well," says the former sideman for Marsalis. "Often times, when you are playing with a band that has been together for years, you trust they will create the mood or moment," says Gordon.

He recalls for me a gig with drummer Alvin Atkinson from the Sound Merchants, "I just did this Crescent City gospel concert and I wrote the music (in a manner) to create the mood that I wanted. It was a cry out to and for the people who were suffering from Hurricane Katrina. We performed it for three nights and on the third night, Alvin nailed it on the head (you can hear the enthusiasm in his voice)."

Gordon says of Atkinson's drumming, "It was almost like he was acting. I sang the words, but with his drum playing, he delivered the cries and the moans."

I have noticed in my travels that there are three types of artist/composers out there. The first have not come to grips with the reality that this is a business and are jaded. The second are in their career of choice and still enjoy it, but the rigors of touring and recording have burned them out. Then you encounter the Wycliffe Gordons of the world who are truly alive and excited about their music.

My conversation with Gordon reminded me of my encounter earlier in the year with Randy Brecker and how he was always looking for new and different ways to experiment and improve upon something that is generally lauded as great. In his own unique and different way, if I may use an oxymoron, Gordon is similar. You get the feeling from talking to him that he can hardly wait for one project to finish so he can start the next. Both brass men look at the young artists coming up as a testament to the exceptional future for jazz.

When his fans listen to The Joyride CD, Gordon hopes they will, "Hear me having fun while I was making it." He says, "I wanted to create original compositions, but mainly I wanted to have fun while (recording) because I had available to me musicians who can play in any style."

Gordon doesn't want to be pigeonholed or stereotyped in terms of the music he creates and performs. "I don't get caught up into the periods, categories or idioms of jazz. If I want to play something that is associated with the bebop period, I will do that. And (the same holds true) if I want to play something that is associated with blues and/or gospel. It is about the freedom to express myself," he says.

To a novice like me, it would appear that the trombone gets the least amount of attention among its country cousins in the horn section. To raise such an opinion to most artists about their beloved instrument might result in a prickly defensive response. However, Gordon immediately launched into a very upbeat public relations campaign concerning the trombone and the instrument's future. As he travels across America and throughout Europe, Gordon has noticed that young people are being inspired to pick up the trombone just as he first was as a teenager listening to "The Keynote Blues" on a recording by Louis Armstrong.

"I was just in England and I ran into somebody who was there from the National Trombone Association that first heard me play twelve or thirteen years ago. He was there (England) competing in a competition. He said, 'I didn't know what instrument I wanted to play, but my parents took me to a concert and I heard you play trombone. I said that's the instrument that I want to play.' Sometimes students have changed instruments or gained a different level of appreciation for the instrument. I have got the opportunity to witness that happening," he says.

"The future of the trombone is great because I have seen and heard the young trombonists that are coming up and man, there are some monster players out here."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Wycliffe Gordon
  • Interview Date: 9/1/2006
  • Subtitle: Shhhh, Gordon Does It Again... Cone's Coup Another Spectacular Outing For Wycliffe Gordon
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