Pops goes Gordon
The Aspen Times
Wycliffe Gordon was 12 when his older brother brought home a trombone. Gordon had been exposed to music — his father played classical piano, and there was gospel in their church, in eastern Georgia — but what drew him to his brother’s instrument wasn’t so much the prospect of playing music but the novelty.
“It was something new in the house, something new to do,” Gordon recalled.
He took to the trombone, found that he liked to practice and began learning tunes out of a method book and from his band teacher at school.
A year or so later, Gordon got his first real taste of jazz music. A great-aunt left the family her sizable collection of jazz records; Gordon gravitated to a five-LP anthology that offered a history of jazz. Again, this was something new.
“I had been listening to the popular music of the day, which meant Kool & the Gang; Earth, Wind & Fire; Parliament-Funkadelic,” Gordon said. “They used electronic instruments. But I used an acoustic instrument, so it was interesting to hear acoustic instruments being played.”
When the 46-year-old Gordon leads his quartet to a two-night stand beginning tonight at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ JAS Cafe in the Little Nell hotel, there will be an older element to the performances. Gordon and his mates — pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Herman Burney and drummer Alvin Atkinson Jr. — will be playing Hello Pops! a tribute to trumpeter-singer Louis Armstrong, whose nicknames included “Pops” and “Satchmo.” The show will draw on songs from Gordon’s 2011 album, also titled “Hello Pops!”
But Gordon says that while the tunes, including “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Basin Street Blues,” might be old and familiar, the sound will be fresh. Such tribute projects, according to Gordon, aren’t meant simply to resurrect the past but to allow contemporary musicians to examine what has come earlier and put their own handprint on the material.
“I never look at it as going backward,” Gordon, who lives in New York City, said from Augusta, Ga., where he was visiting his mother. “My friend Rene Marie recently released a tribute to Eartha Kitt. But she wasn’t trying to re-create Eartha Kitt any more than I was trying to re-create Louis Armstrong. What’s new about it is that I’m doing it.”
Jazz has a strong history of honoring its own history. In addition to Gordon’s Armstrong album and Marie’s Kitt tribute, there are new albums by singer-pianist Eliane Elias — “I Thought About You,” which honors the legacy of trumpeter-singer Chet Baker — and by vocalist Tierney Sutton — “After Blue,” an homage to Joni Mitchell. (All four artists are featured in upcoming shows at the JAS Cafe: Elias is set to perform Feb. 14 through 16, while Marie and Sutton were announced recently for the summer edition of the series.)
“That’s the only way to move the music forward. If you’re not recognizing how the music was developed, you can’t move forward,” Gordon said. “Look at a car — they’re not made the same way they used to be. But they still have wheels and engines. One doesn’t exist without the other. Making a record in tribute, that’s not moving backward at all. For me, that keeps me current.”
The “Hello Pops!” album actually opens with a new original tune, also called “Hello Pops,” that demonstrates how deep Gordon’s affection for Armstrong runs. “You stopped wars with your music, made friends of enemies/ If I did that for 10 million, it wouldn’t amount to what you did for me,” Gordon sings. While the tune has a style, especially in the piano and singing, that links directly back to Armstrong and his hometown of New Orleans, Gordon adds another dimension with a distinctive vocal flair at the end of the chorus.
When Gordon was first absorbing jazz, with that five-album anthology he received as a kid, the thing that hit him hardest was the New Orleans sound, especially as represented by Armstrong.
“The music itself was just exciting,” he said. “Something about it felt joyous and exuberant. I heard ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ — it was just joyous music.”
Gordon’s affection for Armstrong doesn’t seem to have diminished. “Hello Pops!” captures all that feeling Gordon had 30-plus years ago. Over the decades, he has discovered that he is hardly the only one who has been moved by Armstrong’s playful trumpet and raspy voice in that same way.
“It’s music that speaks to the people,” Gordon said, adding that this weekend’s performances will not be limited to Armstrong’s tunes. “It’s music that folks can sing. Even if there are no lyrics, there’s something about the melody you can sing.”
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Gordon studied music at Florida A&M and right around graduation got a call from Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis was a New Orleans-born trumpeter, like Armstrong, but Gordon probably wasn’t thinking so much about the similarities to Armstrong. Marsalis had disbanded the quintet he had led that included his brother, Branford Marsalis, on saxophone, and he was looking to form a new combo, a septet. Marsalis had six musicians on board; Gordon signed on as the seventh. The combo was young, ambitious and supremely talented, lasted a decade or so, released about a dozen albums and set a high-water mark for the modern-jazz group. Later on, Gordon joined the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, also led by Marsalis, but it was the septet that has made the most lasting memory.
“It was great, but it wasn’t the septet,” Gordon said. “It was great to play the music of Ellington, the great composers. But the septet was a close-knit group, spending sometimes 300 days a year on the road. When you’re in the vicinity of musicians like that, you develop a closeness onstage and off that’s incomparable.”
Membership in the Marsalis Septet also allowed Gordon to make his own name. He has been making albums as a bandleader for 15 years. Gordon has racked up numerous best-trombonist honors — he landed on top of the Downbeat Critics poll as “Best in Trombone” the past two years — and NPR listeners around the world have heard his arrangement and orchestration of the theme music for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” In 2011, he was commissioned to compose music and to commemorate the 75th-anniversary celebration for the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Gordon also teaches extensively and finds that instruction in jazz tends to be more than a lesson in music.
“Jazz teaches people it’s OK to be yourself and to function in the world as is, no matter where you are,” he said. “If you’re playing New Orleans music, everyone is playing their role, but each role is important to the outcome. It teaches that your voice is important, another color in the whole picture.”
Gordon is a multi-talented musician. “Hello Pops!” spotlights his voice as much as his horn. He plays tuba, trumpet and piano, and he has a funk band. But probably the clearest indicator of his forward thinking is his playing of the didgeridoo. Gordon first came across the didgeridoo, a simple wind contraption made from a tree, in 1990 while on a tour of Australia with the Marsalis Septet.
“It was an opportunity to make music on an instrument that has something real organic,” said Gordon, who played the didgeridoo on his 2002 album “The Search” and continues to play the instrument occasionally. “I played it and went, ‘Wow, this is an interesting instrument, that drone sound, that unusual timbre.’”
While listeners this weekend get a heavy dose of Armstrong material, Gordon knows he will be delivering more than an echo of Satchmo.
“I know Louis Armstrong’s solos, his inflections, his songs. I’ve acquired that vocabulary, and I can use some of, all of or none of it,” he said. “If I want to play in the style of J.J. Johnson or Dizzy (Gillespie) or the blues, I can call on that cast of characters.”
And if the audience leaves the JAS Cafe with Armstrong on their minds, that’s not such a bad result.
“Every great singer — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett — they said the way Louis Armstrong phrased, his approach to music, his innovation and improvisation, was an influence,” Gordon noted. “He’s influenced people who don’t even know it because they’re second-generation or third-generation. He was a mighty influence on all of pop music in America.”
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