Jon Gordon: 7th Ave South

Despite the altoist’s album being a reference to Greenwich Village, it’s a Manitoba special

Jon Gordon: 7th Ave South
Jon Gordon (centre, saxophone) Quintet at Winnipeg Jazz Festival

Saxophonist Jon Gordon is an outstanding American jazz musician working in Canada who fosters deep ties within his University of Manitoba faculty and student community. Yet, on his new album 7th Ave South – released on ArtistShare, known as a no-compromises distribution house of "experiences" associated with Maria Schneider and others – doesn't play on the chorale and bowed bass and cymbals dramatic opener "Witness". He doesn't need to; his artistic direction is evident in who he brought to this project and the standard of excellence they uphold together.

Gordon emerged earlier than when Kurt Rosenwinkel's quartet was riding high and when the guitarist's generational pace-setting album The Next Step came out, but to me the title track recalls New York in that same kind of way that Rosenwinkel's ensemble captures NYC: "7th Ave South" sounds like the tune "The Next Step". The ensemble line that leads back into the riff and melody is face-melting. The way that the two soloists, Gordon and Will Bonness, dance with the drums on the groove feels grand. It's a minor key, it's a bit intense, but it's a party. Then, "Ponder This" is a much calmer tune featuring Jocelyn Gould's guitar and a slow, almost smooth groove.

"Paradox" is an epic, long session of exploring the composition, soloing, multiple horns interacting, and drums grooving for over 10 minutes. It's like a record unto itself. You've got the alto solo, the trombone playing, the trumpet solo, the Chick Corea-like piano solo, the intense horn figures on a fast tempo. Gordon makes it sound easy, but it's a demanding piece that owns its spot as the centerpiece on this album.

After that workout comes a vocal version of the Beatles "Here, There, and Everywhere" in a clean, pleasant modern jazz style. It keeps coming back to this one distinct, suspended-like chord throughout the arrangement as it dances around.

Then it's back to two more in -depth, contemplative compositions, one featuring the ensemble and one with a wordless vocal. The ensemble writing really reaches its apex on "Ed's Groove" as a bunch of different parts interlock in fun ways. It speaks to the trust that this ensemble has, having their backgrounds in the Manitoba jazz scene and in making music with Gordon specifically. There's a Manitoba music family that is most evident in the quartet, when you have Gordon playing with Will Bonness on piano, Julian Bradford on bass with the beautiful rounded acoustic tone, and Fabio Ragnelli on drums. Gould contributes on guitar as well, but that quartet in particular is pure UofM jazz – despite the album being in reference to Greenwich Village.

"Intro" is a short piece for winds, almost like an "Opening" by Kenny Wheeler to me. When it breaks down to the piano trio, you feel that bounce that Bradford's bass has. It's full of trust.

The last track, "Visit", is a mini-suite with a delicately touched but heavy and slightly dissonant theme, then wordless vocals in multiple sections. It's a fascinating choice to end the album.

I enjoy John Ellis' bass clarinet as a complementary voice to Gordon. He's featured off the top of "Spark". Also on woodwinds, Walter Smith III is as usual a compelling tenor saxophone voice. He takes a moodier approach than Gordon's playfulness and explodes into up-and-down runs around his instrument when he's given a feature.

The reprise of the title track brings back the choir, which includes Manitoba music royalty Joey Landreth of all people, and affirms this album as bigger than Gordon's previous ArtistShare project Stranger Than Fiction. It reminds me of what Rachel Therrien said when she talked on the Rhythm Changes Podcast about wanting to involve as many people as possible in her project, designing it that way. I feel Gordon doing that here too, and you can hear him deliver his concept in all the ways: a saxophone quartet, an ensemble with multiple horns, and a choir of key people resonating with a great life in jazz today.

released May 3, 2024 only on ArtistShare