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The Total Eclipse of Matt Gordy

By Brian L. Knight

Boston area drummer Matt Gordy is definitely today’s musical renaissance man.  After graduating from Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, Gordy embarked on a musical career that brought him to a Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela, and playing gigs with Kansas, Moody Blues, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson and Steve Lawrence.  Between classical music dates and rock and roll gigs, Gordy finds the time to play yet another love, jazz.  He recently recorded Eclipse with his band Phil Grenadier (trumpet), Marc Phaneuf (saxophone), Todd Baker (bass), and Ben Cook (piano) and he is now working on yet another album.  Eclipse is a wonderful sounding jazz album that touches on hard bop, free-bop and a little bit of the avant-garde with the idea of creating a swing groove throughout being the major theme.  No tricks or gimmicks – just six musicians creating some fantastic music.  The Vermont Review had the opportunity to speak to Matt Gordy from his home in Dedham where we found out a bit about the Boston music scene, life at NEC and Gordy’s musical plans for the future. 


Vermont Review: How long have you been calling the Boston area home?


Matt Gordy: I was brought up here. I moved here from Buffalo in 1965 and went to junior high school, high school and the New England Conservatory of Music, which are all in the Boston area until about 1976.  After I graduated from NEC, I went down to Venezuela where I played in a Symphony Orchestra for about nine years.  I moved back to this area in 1985.


VR: What brought you to Venezuela?


MG: A buddy of mine was playing in the orchestra there already.  He was also a Vic Firth (Edward Firth, Timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) student.  There is a camaraderie of ex-Vic Firth students who had graduated, so he came up for one vacation and said, “Hey, here’s this job.  Anybody want it?”  I was the only one that wanted it.  I grabbed it, planning to stay about two years, and ended up staying over nine.


VR: Where did you live in Venezuela?


MG: Maracaibo.  It was kind of hot.  It was interesting.  I also kept playing jazz there as well.  I had a symphony gig playing tympani in the orchestra but I also put together a piano trio – actually I played piano back than, because piano was my first instrument.  Than a horn player came down and it was a quartet, than it was a quintet and than back to a quartet.  It went through different incarnations.  It was interesting to play jazz down there because it was so foreign.  Everything else down there was Salsa and folklore music. 


VR: What kind of music did you study in school – classical or jazz?


MG: I liked crossing the fence.  I officially went to New England Conservatory for a Music Ed degree but quickly switched over about two months later to Applied Performance in the classical mode.  At the same time, I was also in the big band with Jaki Byard and small ensembles.  So I kept crossing the fence back and forth for all four years that I was there.


VR: Boston has a pretty good reputation for a place for jazz education.  What do you think of the area as a place for playing?


MG: I think it is pretty tough.  There are plenty of places to see jazz – you have the two big rooms, obviously, at the Regatta Bar and Scullers where one can see national touring acts.  You don’t see a lot of locals there because it is really hard to get gigs there.  Especially Scullers, most people do not realize, because you have to rent the room.  In the smaller places, where there are more now than five years ago – places like Ryles, the Good Life, Wally’s, Bob the Chefs, there is a pretty good scene.  I always sound like an old fart when I say it is not like the old days when you had the 1369 Jazz Club.  On any given night of the week you could go down there and run into four or five people that you knew who were playing.  It was more of a community than.  It seems like now that it is all separate. 


VR: Between the time of the 1369 and this current resurgence, was there even a darker time for jazz in Boston?


MG: Everything is in cycles and I can’t even tell you where we are in this cycle right now.  I cannot complain because at least there are clubs to play in.  If we lived in Podunk, Illinois, there would be nothing.  But as soon as you compare it to New York, forget about it. 


VR: It sounds like music education been a continuos part of your life. 


MG: Yes. I teach at Concord Academy.  I have been for the last fifteen years.  I teach at Boston Conservatory Music.  I have been there since 1987.  Nobles Academy – I live right here in Dedham so that is five minutes for me.  Then I have anywhere from twenty five and up for private students.


VR: Is there any main message that you try to get across to your students?


MG: That is pretty hard to whittle down to.  What comes to mind is the Louie Bellson quote: “So Many drummers, so little time.”  Meaning that, especially when you get to a level of Berklee, you have all of these specialized teachers teaching world music, because this is what the kids want to learn.  Unfortunately, most of them cannot play 4 quarter notes in a row.  If you know what I mean.  They are so worried about the specializing thing, people have forgotten what the basics are.  I studied with Alan Dawson on drum set.  He definitely stressed to learn the rudiments and basic vocabulary of the technique of playing the drums.  Start with the snare drum or pad and all that sort of stuff.  Reading is stressed.  Within a half hour or hour lesson, whatever the student is taking, you try to get in each one of those facets of technique, reading and just plain grooves………..like different feels of stuff, whether it be a Bossa Nova, Samba, Swing or whatever it is.  


VR: Can you think of any drummers that would serve as a good soundtrack to that lessons?


NG: Alan Dawson was definitely one of them.  He, of course, taught Tony Williams and a smattering of other drummers.  If you look at any of the old schoolers, Elvin Jones, Roy Hanes, Max Roach –they all stress those same things.  There is no shortcut there.


VR: How long have you been with your present band?


MG: The present band, which at the moment is a quartet, is more bare bones.(Editor’s note: Gordy’s most recent release features a quintet).  Specifically it is: Phil Grenadier, who is the trumpet player on the CD.  Mark Phaneuf has moved onto New York so now I am using a tenor player named Rick DiMusio.  The same bass player: Todd Baker.  This band is without a piano player, who on the CD is Matt Cook.  Nothing against him – I am simply trying something here. I would say that the oldest member of the group is Todd Baker, who I have been playing with for eight or nine years.  I played with both Mark and Phil for last five years.  It just worked out.  I have a whole studio set up in my basement and I have jam sessions pretty much every week. Inviting different people are and these are certain people who are trying roughly the same thing.  We all get along -–we are not cutting and killing each other. 


VR: So it sounds like you are heading into some new territory?


MG: I would say so.  If you look at the catalog, which is only three CDs, the first CD (1990), called 2 Two 2, was more of the Art Blakey, Jazz Messenger kind of thing.  That was a sextet with trombone. The second CD, Almost Spring (1995),was more post bop.  Eclipse is more progressive……..I don’t want to say avant-garde because that is not way it is at all.  I hate to put things in a box.  It is definitely not mainstream.  It is a little looser.  It makes the listener have to pay attention a bit more because there is no chordal instrument laying out chords.


VR: For your new gig, are you taking songs you already have in your repertoire and reworking them?


MG: The next gig that we are playing is a little bit of everything.  It is some of the tunes from the CD even though it is without the piano.  Some new stuff.  Some stuff that I have written.  Some stuff that Phil Grenadier, the trumpet player has written.  There is also a tune from this new saxophone player, Rick Dimusio.


VR: I am going to name the names of some musicians.  I would love to hear what you have to say about them.  Philly Joe Jones?


MG: Love him.  I love Philly Joe.


VR: Rebecca Paris?


MG: I like her.  If you have to work with singer, which is not a negative thing, as an avenue of the work, she is the one that I would love to work with.  She lets you play whatever you want to do and she is really supportive.  It is a ball. 


VR: Bill Evans?


MG: I love Bill Evans.  Piano is my first instrument.  For the last eleven years I have been studying with Charlie Banacos on the piano.  I would say that my biggest influence piano wise would be Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarret, a little bit of Oscar and Brad Mehldau.  But it does not get better than Bill Evans. 


VR: Tony Williams?


MG:  One of my favorites.  I would say that between him, (Philly Joe) Jones and Jack DeJohnette, those are three that I am most influenced.  Tony Williams was the first drummer that I heard in a jazz setting.  The first jazz record that I ever bought was Herbie Hancock’ s Maiden Voyage.  I wore that out and bought another one. 


VR: How about some non-jazz musical influences?


MG: Sting is one of my favorites.  I would love to play that guy.   I really respect his writing and I respect his compositions.  I like Beck.  There are two kinds of music: good and bad.  I hate this thing where people are trying to pigeon hole something or somehow put in the box.  “Oh, we cannot sell that because it is nor smooth jazz or it is not this.” You listen to it and you either like it or you don’t.  I get this all time.  I keep crossing the fence even when I am in freelance mode. For example, the Boston Lyric Opera Company in Boston just hired me for Madame Butterfly in October.  When I go to play that, I have no problems fitting there because I did that for nine years in an orchestra setting.  It would be really funny to me to start talking to those classical musicians: “Oh yeah, I played this jazz gig last night and it was burning.”  They look at me like I am from Planet Mars.    It is sort of the same thing when I am in jazz club and I say “Oh, yeah I played the opera last night.” I do not fit in the mold.   I just play music.  That is all.