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Wednesday, June 9,2010

Pluck but sustain

Guitarist Neil Gordon’s trio fights friction

by Lawrence Cosentino

Envy is a deadly sin, unless you’re a musician. Then a little bit helps.


At first peep, everything seems settled in Lansing jazzman Neil Gordon’s world. His percolating chamber-style trio (with bassist Ed Fedewa and drummer Larry Ochiltree) has fully jelled, and is celebrating the release of "It Takes Three," its first CD on Thursday, June 10, at Moriarty’s Pub.


But the quiet power and ductile pull of Gordon’s music owes a lot to his restlessness. He’s played guitar since middle school, but has always coveted the clean, clarion sound of the trumpet.


“I love the way they can sustain and increase the presence of a note over time,” Gordon mused. “Piano and guitar, instruments that are plucked or struck, the notes just decay.”


Gordon’s melodic style draws on varied traditions of bebop, hard bop, soul and rhythm and blues. But trumpet envy helps lift Gordon away from the jazz guitarist’s twin traps — complacent twinkling and restless noodling — into angular, blue-sky flight patterns normally reserved for trumpeters.


To borrow a term from physics, the trio’s coefficient of friction is close to zero. Gordon credited his bandmates for that.


“We can have the rhythm and the tempo be more implied than expressed,” he said. “Rather than everybody stating their part — playing a walking swing, or whatever — we float over the rhythm.”


Gordon grew up in New Jersey and worked in cafes and clubs in Washington, D.C., for 12 years before moving to Michigan in 1997. He quickly made the jazz scene in Ann Arbor, then moved to Lansing in 2002, where he hooked up with Fedewa and Ochiltree.


“There was a really good feeling,” Gordon said. “I liked the way we locked in together on a rhythm and a groove.”


Fedewa is the principal bassist for the Lansing Symphony. “I never felt I needed to pry him away from Brahms and Bach,” Gordon said. “He can swing.”


The trio’s new CD, “It Takes Three,” consists mainly of solid Gordon originals, but ends with “Gingerbread Boy,” a tune written by Jimmy Heath and made famous by Miles Davis. At the recording session, Fedewa pulled out his bow to play the solo. Gordon was surprised, but he wasn’t worried about getting a honeyed earful of Brahms.


“I always thought of bowed solos as soaring, sustained notes,” Gordon said. “He plays a fast-paced, hard bop solo with a bow — cool.”


Gordon is also grateful for Ochiltree’s color and texture on drums. Ochiltree has played with Tony Bennett, Phil Woods, and Maynard Ferguson; he’s a professor at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek.


Gordon doesn’t like to say that Ochiltree has a light touch. He prefers to state the case in the negative.


“He’s not heavy-handed,” Gordon said. “His snare hit doesn’t punch you in the gut, but when you listen to all the different things he’s doing with his cymbal work and his toms, there’s a lot happening.”


Overall, the trio’s sound boils down Gordon’s various musical phases, beginning with Motown and rock. “I listened to Carlos Santana and a fair bit of the Allman Brothers,” Gordon said, as if making a confession. “Duane Allman’s guitar playing is stellar stuff.”


As a high school freshman, Gordon was wowed by a live double bill in New York: pianist Chick Corea and Return to Forever, opening for guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra.


Gordon’s original compositions for the trio settle into the tuneful, searching habitat of post-bebop jazz, as typified by the legendary Blue Note label.


The trio is comfortable with grooves that border on soul and funk, but there’s often an aftertaste of melancholy.


Gordon’s dark take on a Motown classic, “Just My Imagination,” slicks the sunny street of the Temptations’ original with a rain of complex harmonies. After all, the guy in the song has no more chance of getting his girl than Gordon does of playing the trumpet.


Maybe in the next life.


Neil Gordon Trio


CD release party


8 p.m. Thursday, June 10


Moriarty’s Pub,


802 E. Michigan Ave.


(517) 485-5287

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