Daring you not to smile

Jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon lets his happiness come through in his playing, and his audiences can tell.

Wycliffe Gordon (photo credit: Fred Aquilino)
Wycliffe Gordon
(photo credit: Fred Aquilino)
There may be an age-old jazz tenet - as purported by Duke Ellington - that "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." But Wycliffe Gordon would surely add something along the lines of, "It won't last a mile if it don't make you smile." The 42-year-old Georgia-born trombonist will be here later this week, along with trumpeter Jim Rotondi, to spread his feel-good message as part of the next installment of this year's Hot Jazz series. "Music is about entertainment," Gordon states succinctly in a telephone interview from Calgary, Canada, where he was presenting a week of jazz workshops and concerts prior to jetting over here. "I'm not saying we all should make our audiences smile and laugh during a concert. People are different and, of course, so are musicians. You express who you area. I choose to be happy, so that comes through in the way I play and perform." That may be a contender for understatement of the year. Check out, for instance, Gordon's 2007 synergy with bassist-vocalist Jay Leonhart, This Rhythm on My Mind. If anyone can keep a straight face listening to cut 6 on the album, "Toast My Bread," for instance, or opening number "Rhythm on My Mind," they would have to be extremely depressed or hard of hearing. The CD just reeks of a happy-go-lucky, tongue-incheek, letting-it-all-hang-out ethos. "I love to have fun," Gordon continues. "Music should be uplifting. Most of the time at my concerts, people feel good. Even if I'm playing a sad song, I want you to feel good about your own sad situation." That sounds like the very essence of the blues mind-set. Gordon grew up with a heady mix of church music, gospel and the blues. But he also found time for some more contemporary vibes. "Yeah, I used to listen to pop and rock stuff on the radio. I liked guys like Kool and the Gang, and Earth, Wind & Fire." Fittingly, Gordon's main jazz influences made a name for themselves with the sunny performance disposition. "I listened to people like Louis Armstrong and [pianist and comedic entertainer] Fats Waller, and I also got into classical music." The latter is evident from Gordon's mastery of his instrument. In truth, the trombone is not everybody's first choice instrument in jazz. Legendary trombonist Curtis Fuller relates how he ended up with "one of the instruments the white kids didn't want" when he lived in an orphanage in Detroit. For Gordon, however, it was more a matter of the sibling effect. "My older brother played trombone so I wanted on, too," Gordon recalls. "I'd wanted to play the drums before that, but when I saw him with the trombone, that was it for me." Over the past 20 or so years, Gordon has made forays into many areas of the musical world. Besides jazz, he has put out albums like In the Cross, which he recorded with the 11-member Garden City Gospel Choir. "I've written and performed soul music, although I've not recorded it yet. And I also want to do a funk CD." Naturally, Gordon's eclectic approach will come through thick and strong during his forthcoming tour, which will also feature Latinesque numbers by Duke Ellington. Prepare to be entertained. You have been warned. Wycliffe Gordon will perform at the Gerard Bachar Center in Jerusalem on Tuesday at 9 p.m.; Zappa Club in Herzliya on Wednesday at 10 p.m.; Tel Aviv Museum on Thursday at 9 p.m. and Friday at 9:30 p.m.; and at Abba Hushi House in Haifa on Saturday at 9 p.m. For more information: www.hotjazz.co.il.