Almost exactly a quarter-century ago, Jon Gordon won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, as judged by the unimpeachable quintet of Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Jackie McLean, and Joshua Redman. But Stranger Than Fiction is the latest evidence that, while he is a lithe and coursing altoist in the manner of his mentor Phil Woods, Gordon wields the pen more memorably than the horn.
The best of these 10 songs for nonet have the layered sophistication and integrity of Shorter. Secondary themes are presaged, fully emerge, and then disappear with clever timing and juxtaposition. The three reeds and two brass in the horn section dazzle with evolutionary colors more than driving force, and even when this soft power becomes less restrained, the context of the composition dictates the parameters.
More specifically, “Dance” and “Bella” roam a broad terrain of shifting tones and rhythmic undercurrents, as varied and yet inexorable as seamless suites. The opener, “Pointillism,” begins with disparate, stray notes from the horns that increase in frequency and resolve into a spirited exchange between Gordon and drummer Fabio Ragnelli right before they coalesce. Songs with plainspoken titles like “Counterpoint” and “Modality” explore and interpolate those concepts in ways that reward repeated listening.
Gordon chose not to let COVID deter his first nonet album since 2009’s Evolution, recording Stranger Than Fiction in Winnipeg with a core quintet consisting mostly of former students at the University of Manitoba, then adding longtime pals such as trombonist/arranger Alan Ferber, bass clarinetist John Ellis, and faculty colleague Derrick Gardner on trumpet recording from home. His impetus for the project was his longstanding need to be “calling out” what he terms “the authoritarian denial of reality” in the United States. Unfortunately, the ascetic nature of Stranger Than Fiction obscures that purpose. His multiple but mostly brief solos, and those of guest pianist Orrin Evans and guitarist Jocelyn Gold during “Bella,” plus Gardner on “Modality,” don’t really cry out, and are easily subsumed back into the greater ensemble. The result is music that’s both taut and lush, but never discordant.
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