Jon Gordon’s “Stranger Than Fiction”

Cover_Jon Gordon_Stranger_Than_Fiction

what a performanceGORDON: Pointillism.1-5 Havens.2-3,5 Stranger Than Fiction.* 2-3,6 Dance.2-3 Sunyasin.4,5 Counterpoint.2,3,6 Bella.* 1,3 Modality.1,4 Steps.1,4 Walking Dream 4 / Jon Gordon, a-sax; Derrick Gardner, tpt; Alan Ferber, tb; 1Reginald Lewis, 2Tristan Martinuson, t-sax; 3John Ellis, 4Anna Blackmore, bs-cl; 5Jocelyn Gould, gtr/voc; 6Larry Roy, gtr; Will Bonness, *Orrin Evans, pno; Julian Bradford, bs; Fabio Ragnelli, dm / Artist Share, self-produced CD available HERE

It seems as if every jazz player in the world today considers him or herself a “composer,” when in fact most of what they write are tunes, and often uninteresting ones at that—it’s the solos that liven up the pieces they play. But alto saxist Jon Gordon can honestly and truly call himself a composer because what he writes are complex pieces that have structure and are also harmonically challenging to his fellow musicians.

The opener on this set, Pointillism, is a perfect example, starting off as a few sporadic notes that seem unrelated but then moves on to a sax solo by Gordon, during the course of which we hear dark, Monk-like figures played by two tenor saxes and two bass clarinets in unison. Thus we have here music akin to that which Charles Mingus wrote, only with a modern bent. In Havens, Gordon coalesces the beat more fully than in Pointillism, opens with one them and then moves to another which contrasts as well as complements the first. Eventually we get a swinging 6/8 beat, but this comes and goes as the music—all of it at this point written and not improvised—continues to develop. But fear not, jazz lovers; there’s plenty to hear in this piece, improvised or not. It holds your attention in part due to the constantly shifting meter and in part due to the eventual regularity of the irregular-sounding melodic line which runs like a thread throughout the entire composition. I believe that Will Bonness’ piano solo is the only improvisation on this track; it starts out almost as a fill to the ongoing melodic line before the saxes drop out and let Bonness move into more daring territory—but still staying within one basic chord except for the ends of phrases. At about the 6:35 mark, I think that trumpeter Derrick Gardner is also improvising, but not truly a solo…he plays over the ongoing development of the saxes. Truly a strange composition!

Moreover, this strangeness continues throughout the album, and I must give Gordon props for not repeating himself from track to track. Not only is every piece in this set interesting, all of it sounds different from the tracks preceding and following each one. He thus has more than one “voice” as a composer, although intricate rhythms and a strong use of counterpoint infuse each one. Gordon’s solo in the midst of Stranger Than Fiction somehow comes as a surprise, simply because at this point in the piece one has come to expect further written-out development, but here he chose to just play an improvisation, which is in turn followed by an excellent guitar solo by Larry Roy and an even better one by pianist Orrin Evans.

As one continues to listen to the entire set, the more one becomes engrossed in Gordon’s compositional style, almost as if this were a concert of formal music. And that is as it should be because, as I mentioned early on, he is a real composer and not just someone who bats out a few tunes to jam on. Now, mind you, he’s not quite as varied in his approach as Mingus was; most of his melodic lines, though very creative, tend to stay within a fairly narrow note-range, and Dance sounds suspiciously like a faster variant of Haven, but the invention is always there, and I particularly like his ear for instrumental color. Gordon apparently likes his instruments to play from the middle of their ranges on down–not for him the blasting trumpet sound of some groups—and he has a keen ear for mixing his instruments to create unusual timbral blends. So he at least has an individual approach to both composition and orchestration. One might be tempted to say that he uses his 9- or 10-piece (depending on the track) band as a small orchestra, but it goes beyond that. Gordon thinks like a chamber music composer who is trying to balance a specific group of woodwinds, or strings and brass, or whatever, thus he constantly alternates between blending, polyphony, and moving the different voices in his ensemble around either together or in opposing figures. In Sunyasin he even blends in a wordless soprano voice (Jocelyn Gould) in a way that reminded me of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, only with far less brass. And this impression continued into the little fugue he threw in, which eventually unravels as the underlying tenors and bass clarinets move away from the alto sax and trumpet. So much of this is subtle that the casual listener will undoubtedly miss a lot of this, but repeated listening will reward you with the ingenuity of Gordon’s writing. And, as in the preceding tracks, when the guitar solo comes it almost seems like a surprise—a release from the intricate web of music he has sucked you into.

And the surprises, always subtle, keep on coming, like the opening rhythm of Bella which seems to be running backwards, and the sudden surprise of hearing a bass solo (the first one on the record). On Modality, Gordon harks back to several of the jazz experiments of the late 1950s and early ‘60s, yet his use of harmony is more fluid and has more movement than in many a “modal” piece from that earlier time (e.g., Miles Davis’ So What?). When the alto solo comes in, around the 1:48 mark, the rhythm suddenly changes into a sort of a funky Latin groove. Then, in Walking Dream, one hears the multiple layers of the improvised piano playing against the alto sax, both of which are played against by the bass and drums in different rhythms. Fascinating!

My best advice to you is, Get this album and listen, listen, listen! I promise you, the listening will reward your patience. There are several layers to this music, and all of them are fascinating.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Jon Gordon’s “Stranger Than Fiction”

  1. Hi Lynn, I am Jon’s former student, so I know his music pretty well. Your review of his upcoming album is well written, enticing, well- informed and enjoyable. You’ve done a great job painting a picture here, and I am very much looking forward to hearing the music! Thanks 🙂

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