The gospel truth about jazz

UK-based jazz singer Denise Gordon will be performing her eclectic mix of jazz, gospel, blues and a little rock as part of the Hot Jazz series

‘I DID a gospel concert in Stuttgart, and people said it was like a rock concert... Still, it’s not all about pumping out the decibels. You go into things with energy, but it’s all about the heart,’ says jazz vocalist Denise Gordon. (photo credit: CLIFF SODEN)
‘I DID a gospel concert in Stuttgart, and people said it was like a rock concert... Still, it’s not all about pumping out the decibels. You go into things with energy, but it’s all about the heart,’ says jazz vocalist Denise Gordon.
(photo credit: CLIFF SODEN)
Denise Gordon has been doing things her own sweet way for a long time. The UK-based jazz singer says her musical education began at the age of three, although not in a formal sense.
Gordon, who is coming over here next week, as the star of the next installment of this year’s Hot Jazz series, comes from a religious Christian family with roots in the Caribbean.
That, she says, offered her the requisite entry into her chosen improvisational art form.
Thus far the forty-something vocalist has put out three albums, and performed the world over with a wide mix of straight-ahead jazz, sounds heavily seasoned with her roots gospel sensibilities and other material which feeds off the wide swath of influences that have filtered into Gordon’s consciousness over time including soul, R&B, rock and the blues.
One impressive aspect of Gordon’s work is that she can take a standard that has been performed and recorded thousands upon thousands of times, such as Gershwin’s timeless classic “Summertime,” and deliver it in her own singular style, and with a sense of complete comfort. The number in question is on Gordon’s brand new release, the suitably entitled Gospel According to Jazz, and it opens with a hip-hoppy, funky riff. Even so, Gordon’s vocals are more reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald than a contemporary commercial singer. If that is an example of what we can expect to get when Gordon joins forces with as 12-piece combo headed by New York-based Israeli saxophonist Eyal Vilner on the nationwide, eight-date tour between November 30 and December 9, local jazz fans are in for a treat.
“It’s how you make it your own, I think,” Gordon remarks. “I grew up in church. It was always experimental.”
Really? Church services do not generally conjure up images of on-the-fly musical endeavor. Then again, this is the Caribbean approach to Christianity we’re talking about.
“It was experimental because we weren’t taught in any specific way. We just listened with our ears and tried things. It was always supported, whatever we did, whether it was terrible or not.”
Music also provided Gordon, and her peers, with a positive view of religious observance.
“The only time there was a chance of anything exciting happening was when we had to sing something in church. The rest of the time it was a lot of talking and preaching. As soon as there was a song, we got up and we thought, okay this is our time. It was ‘you sing on the bottom and I’ll sing on the top,’ or the other way round. It was experimental. It was always energetic and funny. It wasn’t a bad experience.”
That happy-go-lucky ethos was augmented by all the sounds and vibes of the day Gordon was exposed to back in the 1980s.
“I also had a lot of influences from outside the church, that were a lot more radical,” continues the singer.
That touched on various areas of Gordon’s personal development.
“I think I always leaned towards experimenting and pushing – musically as well.”
The youngster’s spread of formative sounds came from all quarters.
“My mum was a church woman and we’d go to the pastor’s house, and all we’d hear was [iconic Gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson,” Gordon recalls. “That was a time you only heard sacred music.”
But there was plenty in the way of secular stuff to be had too.
“The rest of the week my brothers were playing Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye and The Clash in my house. My brothers weren’t going to church anymore, they were sort of rebelling. That was always as interesting as what was going on on Sunday [at church services].”
Then again, there was some parental encouragement for what became Gordon’s career path too.
“My parents just loved music,” she states.
“There were parties at my dad’s house centered around music – people playing ska and blue beat. So you had all that. That’s why I’m into experimental music, because there are so many influences that seem to seep out.”
Gordon’s audiences get that.
“I did a gospel concert in Stuttgart, and people said it was like a rock concert.”
Still, it’s not all about pumping out the decibels.
“You go into things with energy, but it’s all about the heart,” she says.
Gordon has always kept at least one ear trained on what the greats of the day, and yesteryear, were doing. Megastar singer Whitney Houston certainly left her imprint on Gordon’s artistic direction, as well as on the youngster’s eventual line of work.
“She came from the gospel tradition too.
She wasn’t just a pop singer, and you could hear there was something different, and that I should relate to that because she had come through church.”
That ticked all Gordon’s childhood boxes.
“I thought, wow! she’s a church singer.”
Other iconic artists came into Gordon’s musical radar via a star of the day.
“In the Eighties there was R&B and soul singer Anita Baker, and then I started looking at her biography and who had influenced her. Then I discovered Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. You came to things by whatever moved you. I thought, all those singer were church singers, and they were all pastors’ daughters.”
That helped to clarify Gordon’s mindset.
“I thought I couldn’t be a gospel jazz singer.
That doesn’t make any sense. Mahalia was a gospel singer. There was no crossover. But now, it’s all there. It’s New Orleans, it’s gospel, it’s jazz, it’s blues. It’s experimental, it’s environmental.
It’s mental,” she laughs.
A visit to the aforementioned US city, which has been dubbed “the cradle of jazz” certainly helped to stoke Gordon’s smoldering jazz embers.
“Being there is amazing. Sometimes, when you’re there, you just have to shut things off, because the musical stimulus is so intense.
You need some quite times, and that is where the songs come out from. It may be quiet but everything’s cooking.”
Gordon has performed with all kinds of bands over the years and says she is excited about fronting Vilner’s large combo here.
“These are the first real big band concerts I will have done,” she notes, surprisingly. “I have been asked by so many, but it’s never worked out for one reason or another.”
With Vilner it was a matter of things happening at the right time.
“As soon as Eyal and I starting exchanging ideas I thought, this is great. Eyal has also been down to New Orleans so he knows what that feels like. When you’re making music you have to be real.”
Hot Jazz patrons can look forward to a diverse offering from Gordon, Vilner et al, dipping into gospel, blues, jazz, groovy and funky numbers, with some softer balladic slots. Gordon may also slip into some seasonal spirit while she’s here.
“We are going to try to do a Hanukka song,” she chuckles. “This is going to be fun.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 573- 3001 and