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Live Review

Day 2 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 23, 2006


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The first show on Day Two of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival featured a trio of artists ranging from underexposed to near-legendary.

Jon Gordon's performance at the 4 pm Connoisseur Series demonstrated the ability of this thirty-something alto/soprano saxophonist and his trio to take a largely standards-based repertoire, turn it on its side, and re-examine it from a different perspective. A precocious youngster who picked up the horn at ten, Gordon was already playing with luminaries like Red Rodney, Barney Kessel and Mel Lewis while he was still in his teens.

He may have been a strong traditionalist at that point, but in recent years he's begun to expand his reach, playing with more contemporary artists like Mark Turner, big band leader/composer/arranger Maria Schneider and Bill Charlap. His own records have demonstrated an increasingly schizophrenic desire to reinvent the standards repertoire and develop his own skills as a composer. His next two discs, which explore both areas, are already in the can and set for release over the next couple of years on ArtistShare.

Guitarist Ben Monder possesses staggering technique and an incredibly wide range, as evidenced by work with a diversity of artists ranging from Maria Schneider and Paul Motian to Donny McCaslin and Tim Ries. His own work combines long through-composition with an outer-reaching improvisational mindset; his latest release, Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005) received strong, well-deserved critical acclaim.

Drummer Billy Drummond, still on the shy side of fifty, emerged in the late 1980s and has played with everyone from Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson to Eddie Henderson and the perennially underrated Steve Kuhn. Like Monder, he's got formidable technique and an open mind; he's well-versed in the tradition, but equally capable of going further afield when the need arises.

And the need certainly arose during this performance. The concept of a saxophonist/guitar/drums trio is certainly nothing new—Paul Motian's been doing it for over twenty years. Nor is the idea of approaching the standards repertoire within this context revolutionary; it's also been a part of Motian's modus operandi. Motian's trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano has always been somewhat rarefied—in no small part due to Frisell's more ethereal approach—and Gordon's trio sometimes sounded like Motian's trio on steroids. The overall energy level was higher, and while Drummond approached the music from a textural angle at times, elsewhere he was considerably more aggressive, lending a more defined simmering swing underneath Monder and Gordon's oftentimes contrapuntal interplay.

After altoist Miguel Zenón's performance on the festival's first day, comparisons with Gordon were inevitable. Both play with a warm tone, but Gordon can also lean a little harder into the horn at times and give it a rawer edge. The set list included "I Should Care, "Alone Together, "Secret Love and a version of "All the Things You Are that may have started out conventionally, but went considerably out before ultimately reining back in for the finish. Gordon's roots may be in the tradition, but he's also moving towards a freer approach. And while he focused mainly on alto, he demonstrated equal facility on soprano, and a tone that was less nasal than, say, Coltrane's—instead, like his alto tone, warm and full.

Monder can be as spare and atmospheric as Frisell when he wants to be, and he's certainly as encyclopedic stylistically. But he's also a more grounded player. Where Frisell relies on the special breadth of open strings, Monder's staggering ability to move through lengthy, effortlessly flowing chordal passages created both a firm foundation for Gordon and a more distinctive approach during his own solos. His ability to execute lightning-fast linear phrases and almost impossible to imagine intervallic leaps kept his solos interesting throughout.

Monder and Drummond worked well together, creating a sound which was larger and deeper than one might expect from a bass-less trio. They worked especially well on the set's closer, Gordon's "Joe Said So. Despite the imaginative approach they took to standards, this piece made me wonder why Gordon didn't include more of his own compositions during the show. He's clearly a writer with plenty to say, and as modernistic as the trio's approach to standards could be, the three players really opened up on this tune.

Gordon's first ArtistShare release is due out in the fall, the second in 2007; hopefully he'll begin receiving attention from larger audiences beyond New York. So many players are out there vying for exposure, but he both deserves it and seems poised to get it.

Visit Jon Gordon and the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

Photo Credit
John Kelman

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