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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the November 15, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Slidin’ Home with the Blues

Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s recent album, "Slidin’

Home," may be the most significant jazz album released last year.

He delves into blues, gospel, Dixieland and other musical forms that

were part of the development of jazz. He tackles the standards, like

Ellington’s "Mood Indigo," and "It Don’t Mean A Thing,"

and W.C. Handy’s "St. Louis Blues," and even does his own

take on the traditional "Hallelujah Shout." But what makes

Gordon’s album so compelling is that he adds his own originals to

the standards. These include "New Awlins," which sounds as

if it were recorded in the 1920s, or "Blooz, First Thang ‘Dis

Moanin’," a blues of sorts reminiscent of 1950s bebop. But there’s

also a cameo by former Ellington band vocalist Milt Grayson, now 70-something,

who sounds in fine form on Gordon’s take of "Do Nothin’ ‘Til You

Hear From Me."

Best known by jazz fans as the trombonist with the Lincoln Center

Jazz Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis’ fabulous band, Gordon is actually

a multi-instrumentalist who plays not just trombone, but also tuba,

piano, drums, and clarinet.

"For `Slidin’ Home,’ I decided the format was to be standards

from different periods in jazz," Gordon explains from a tour stop

in Chicago. This fall Gordon left the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

for a while to pursue his own musical career as a bandleader. "I

did a spiritual tune, I did a New Orleans-style tune, I did a blues,

a ballad, a bebop tune, and for each of those styles, I did an original

composition that I thought might have been written at that time and

would be considered a standard."

The 33-year-old multi-instrumentalist and composer was born in the

small country town of Waynesboro, Georgia, but raised in nearby Augusta.

He began playing trombone at age 12.

"My first awareness of blues and jazz was through a record collection

that I had received from a great aunt, when she passed, she gave her

record collection to my family," Gordon says, "and among the

things in there was a five-record set, `The History of Jazz,’ which

covered everything from the early slave chants to what was considered

modern jazz at that time, which was Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band."

That collection, as well as the recordings of trumpeter Louis Armstrong,

had a tremendous impact on the young Gordon. As did his father, who

died in 1998.

"My father was a classically trained piano player," he says,

"and his interest in jazz didn’t really come about until I started

having some accomplishments of my own in the jazz world. He mostly

played in the church, but he was a very good sight reader." Gordon’s

mom, a nurse, still practices in his native Augusta.

Gordon played all the valve instruments through high school, and then

attended Florida A&M University.

"I majored in music on paper, but I really majored in partyin’,"

he says, laughing. His first big break was being hand-picked by trumpeter

Marsalis to join his septet in 1989. "I was the seventh member

to join and that was the greatest thing for me musically at that point

in my life," he recalls.

"In 1988 he flew me out to Texas to play and see what I could

do. Then 10 months later he flew me up to Blues Alley [a jazz nightclub]

in Washington, and then I joined his band," he says. "During

the summer months of 1989, I joined his band and what was a temporary

arrangement became a permanent thing." Although Gordon attended

Florida A&M for four years, he didn’t graduate.

"Wynton Marsalis was flying me around, and I was going to transfer

schools anyway," he recalls. "He always encouraged us to finish

school, and I realized the school is not going to go anywhere, but

I may never get this opportunity to play with Wynton again." Gordon

was a key member of Marsalis’ septet until that group disbanded in

December, 1994, as things began to heat up with Marsalis’ workload

with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Gordon recently had the spotlight cast on his talents as he debuted

his film score for Oscar Micheaux’s silent film, the screen debut

of Paul Robeson, "Body And Soul." On September 24 Lincoln

Center presented Gordon’s score with a special screening of the film.

Gordon says composing the music for the 86-minute film presented unique

challenges.

"It was my first time doing this, and the plus side of it was

that I had total autonomy to do what I wanted to do, musically. I

didn’t have a musical director telling me what kind of music should

go here or there in the film," he says. "This was a complete

86 minutes of music non-stop. But the arduous part of the project

was dealing with the technical side of it. Once I had to synchronize

it, that’s when things began to get very interesting. I had to rearrange

certain arrangements."

Asked about his influences, Gordon cites trumpeter and American music

icon Armstrong as a key inspiration, but also mentions trombonists

Jack Teagarden, Al Grey, and Vic Dickinson.

Unlike so many other young upstarts in the jazz world, Gordon is solidly

based in tradition, which means recognizing the role blues and gospel

music had in the evolution of jazz.

"The blues runs through everything I do," he says. Similarly,

trumpeter Marsalis, who wrote the liner notes for "Slidin’ Home,"

has a special understanding and appreciation for blues. Asked what

he makes of the young players coming up who don’t know how to play

the blues, Gordon says the emphasis for these soul-less players should

be more on feeling, and less on technique.

"A lot of times, the younger generation, which would include myself,

we get caught up in figuring out how to play the instrument, get caught

up in exercises and patterns," he says. "But the patterns

in jazz should really be like the alphabet in language. You don’t

really think about it, you use the alphabet to learn how to read and

write, but you don’t think about it while you’re talking. You should

really concentrate your efforts on learning how to sing on the instrument."

"A lot of times, we forget how to play and improvise from a melodic

standpoint, and one way to do that is to learn to improvise from melodies

that are blues-based. Once you’re able to do that, you’re able to

create music that doesn’t sound like it was created by a machine."

Gordon’s first album, "Bone Structure," was

released in 1996 on Atlantic’s very short-lived jazz label, an attempt

by Atlantic CEO Ahmet Ertegun and high ranking executives to get back

into the music they were most passionate about. But the label was

crushed by executives at Time Warner, which owns Atlantic, because

it wasn’t commercially profitable. Gordon has two other releases that

just came out this month, "Gospel Truth" on the Netherlands-based

Criss-Cross label, and "The Search," his second release for

Nagel-Heyer.

Asked if he finds the audiences better in Europe, he says there seems

to be a bigger appreciation for America’s native classical music,

jazz and blues, in Europe and even in most of the Asian countries.

"But personally, I haven’t had a lot of experience over there,

outside of working with Wynton and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra,"

he adds. In other words, his career under his own name as a bandleader

is just beginning to take off, and since he just took a break from

LCJO this fall, the European shows haven’t been booked yet.

On "Slidin’ Home," Gordon is all over the place with his trombone

solos, but he doesn’t over-solo, and each solo is part of the greater

melody being played. He’s also accompanied by a stellar cast of musicians,

including pianist Eric Reed, drummer Herlin Riley, Victor Goines on

clarinet and tenor sax, Joe Temperley on baritone and soprano saxophones,

and Randy Sandke on trumpet.

Asked who will accompany him at the Peddie School in Hightstown, Gordon

says he isn’t sure yet if he’ll be leading a quartet or quintet. He

does know he’ll have Robert Rucker on drums, and either Eric Lewis

or Eric Reed on piano. But one thing is certain: Gordon will play

the blues.

"Blues will definitely be a part of it, and gospel may be a part

of it depending on who is in the band," he says, "if we have

Eric Reed on piano, I can get away with playing some spirituals and

hymns."

"The best live shows are when things are spontaneous," he

continues, "if you plan too much, it becomes like a classical

concert. What we’ll do depends on the musicians I’m playing with,

and their strengths and weaknesses. You just have to try things and

be prepared to deal with what may happen."

— Richard J. Skelly

Wycliffe Gordon, Peddie School, William Mount-Burke

Theater, South Main Street, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. $15. Friday,

November 17, 8 p.m.


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