Jon Gordon on Mastery, Making a Life in Music, and More

John GordonTouted by Phil Woods as “one of the greatest alto players ever,” it’s no coincidence that Jon Gordon has been steadily building his reputation as one of the baddest of the bad on his axe. And it’s hard to avoid virtuosity when you’re sharing the stage and studio with folks like Kenny Barron, Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Benny Carter, Ron Carter, Harry Connick Jr., Christian McBride, Mulgrew Miller, Joshua Redman, John Scofield, Bruce Springsteen, the New York Pops Orchestra and The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra to name just a smattering.

Jon’s 2008 release “Within Worlds” was selected by Down Beat as one of the top releases for that year, and that decade as well. His the last CD, Evolutionwas mentioned in multiple “Best of ’09” lists as well.  Frankly, listing his critical accolades could make for a separate article in and of itself.

If for some strange reason you’re not familiar with Jon Gordon yet, I’ll guess that by now your interest has been officially piqued. So without any further ado…

The Interview

Doron Orenstein: What was it that inspired you to make music your life?

Jon Gordon: I was inspired to play the saxophone by the fact that my Mom’s first husband was the great West Coast Baritone player, Bob Gordon. Bob passed at the age of 27 in a car accident in 1956. Though I was born more than 10 years later I thought he was my Dad until around the age of 10, just before I started junior high at IS 61 on Staten Island. Also, my mother had had somewhat of a career on the West Coast as a singer, subbing on The King Sisters TV show among other things, so you could say I came from a musical family.

I also happened to go to a great school on Staten Island with a great music program, IS 61, where I finally got a chance to play the saxophone after years of wanting to. Hearing good young players early on definitely helped to inspire me.

DO: What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve been given over the course of your playing career?

JG: Hard to say what the best advice I’ve given over the years is; I was probably echoing words that were spoken to me. The main thing that comes to mind at the moment is, if you don’t love this music and what you’re doing with it, then you shouldn’t be doing it. You definitely shouldn’t be spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to go to college or build a career out of it. Really the best advice for anyone, a musician or otherwise is, do what you love. That’s it. Love finds a way. If you’re a good person, you treat others in the way you’d like to be treated, and you love the music, that’s almost half the battle. I think of the movie “The Red Shoes.” In it, the head of the greatest dance company in the world asks an aspiring ballerina who wants to dance for him, “Why do you dance?” She answers, “Why do you breathe?”

You do this, you work at this art form, or any art form because you love it, and you have to do it. If that’s not there, that’s ok. Just enjoy and appreciate the music (we need listeners too), and go do something where you can make a decent living for God’s sake! Phil Woods and Eddie Locke both said this to me many times in one form or another. But if you do decide to do this, remember that in the end, we’re lucky to do what we do. It’s the folks that sit at a desk everyday that are really paying dues – Art Blakey told me that a couple of times at Sweet Basil when I was a teenager.

DO: What do you find yourself practicing the most these days?

JG: My practicing changes depending on what’s happening in my life. This year I’ve had to learn a lot of new music for various projects that I’ve performed and/or recorded with, so almost each week there was new, and often challenging music to learn which took up a good deal of time. I also spend a lot of time working on playing things I’ve written in recent years. Sometimes it can be challenging to play your own compositions and I do spend a lot of time working on my writing as well. Mostly I’m focusing on my concepts on the alto and soprano saxophones, dealing with sound, technical issues, time, and language. Forms in all keys is one example that I still work on at times that deal with a number of these issues, and I ask all my students to work on this as well. You might be playing a very traditional form, but I like to hear the whole history of the music both as a listener and a player on any form I’m playing. That’s an example of one concept that I think about in my practicing and something I’ve heard in so many of my favorite players- Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano, et al.

DO: What have you been listening to lately?

JG: Lately I’ve been listening to various things, as always; Sinatra, some rock/pop that I grew up with, The Oscar Peterson trio with Milt Jackson, Basie ( Splanky and Blues in Hoss Flat ), Lovano Live at The Vanguard, Art Tatum

DO: What’s the next musical frontier for Jon Gordon?

JG: There are a lot of projects I’d like to in the coming year or two. Having finally included strings on my last CD, “Evolution”, I’d love to record with them again. I’ve always wanted to do a ballads CD w/strings. I’d also like to record the large group again in one form or another, probably as a tentet, possibly live. And I’d like to work on writing some more small group music that I’d like to eventually record as well.

DO: What would you say to someone looking to make a life for themselves as a professional saxophonist?

JG: What I would say to someone who is hoping to become a professional saxophonist is that they’ve got to be prepared to work very hard, find what their strengths are, what they have to offer, what they’re inspired by, and go for that, without being too concerned about money or having a fallback plan. If you have a fallback plan you may use it. Go to the people who inspire you and ask to take lessons with them, go to the places where the music is happening. There’s only so much you can do without being in a community that raises the bar for you in ways you can’t do for yourself. Stay humble  – knowing that you have something to learn is the best perspective to learn from. It’s the folks that think they’ve got it all together that stop growing.

DO: For those new to your music, which recording would you suggest they pick up?

JG: While I’m never satisfied with too much I do, I’d recommend the last CD, “Evolution”. It’s the most complete representation of my music that I’ve been able to record. It helps that I’ve taken control of my recordings in recent years and been able to realize my vision for my music.

DO: What’s your saxophone equipment setup?

JG: I play a Selmer Mark VI alto, # 193,000 with an old New York Meyer 5 mouthpiece, worked on by both Ted Klum and John Van Wie. The reed currently is a Vandoren ZZ 3, though I played V 16  2+ 1/2’s for 12 years before that. On soprano I play a Yanagasawa and a Ray Bari Coda mouthpiece with a Marca 3 reed.