By J. Michael Kearsey
Gordon Lee is building a chicken wire protector filled with leaves from the backyard of his Sunnyside house.
As the cold spell set in, he is serious about saving his banana tree. “I don’t do much out here, but I am going to save this tree. We lost one in the frost last year and I am going to save it!”
Satisfied with his work, we moved into the quiet warmth of his home studio filled with jazz LPs and CD’s, a grand piano and stacks of sheet music to talk of his latest CD, his career, travels and travails.
I was thankful to spend time with Lee whose weekly schedule is quite intense: Professor Lee teaches several days a week in Monmouth at Western Oregon University; he ‘coaches’ four Reed College jazz bands and combos on Mondays; has a half dozen private lessons a week and usually gigs on the weekends somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
Besides all that, he always works Tuesday nights at Jimmy Mak’s in the Pearl District.
“I have been working with drummer Mel Brown for nearly 20 years. He is the kind of guy that when he gets a gig, he keeps it. Some personnel may change, but he keeps the gig. We have played every week since 1998.”
The new CD, titled Tuesday Night, is a celebration of all those years with Mel Brown, the often-praised jazz icon and bandleader who Lee first heard when he was working in the kitchen at Sam’s Hideaway in 1977.
A fellow music student at Indiana University, trumpeter Richard Burdell, invited Gordon to come to Portland and meet Tom Grant and Ron Steen. His first steady gig was at the piano chair of Carl Smith’s Natural Gas, one of the last of the popular big bands in the Rose City.
Lee played piano with the progressive group Freebop at Ray’s Helm and caught the ear of saxophonist Jim Pepper who recruited him for his own group.
Pepper had a deserved reputation as a genius on the sax; a composer who chose to fuse jazz with his Native American folk music, and an unpredictable spirit.
Lee’s work with Pepper broadened the pianist’s musical palette and showed him the road. After several years of national and international touring, Lee settled in Greenwich Village in 1980 to be closer to the epicenter of jazz.
“I would see Andy Warhol and Dustin Hoffman at the bar I was playing. Keith Richards had an apartment above me.”
Pepper came to live, play and record there as well. The Gordon Lee Quartet recorded Land Whales in New York in 1982 with Pepper, drummer Bob Moses and bassist Calvin Hill.
“There were ups and downs with Jim Pepper. He was invited to play at the Kennedy Center –by Lorne Greene actually. Jim hung up on him a few times, but eventually agreed to perform at the ‘Night of the First Americans’ since Jim’s best known tune, “Witchi Tai To,” was taken from a Kaw Indian chant. I had a chance to arrange for an orchestra.”
This may have changed his outlook, as he returned to Oregon in 1985 to continue his studies at PCC, Mt. Hood and eventually obtain a Masters Degree at PSU, studying with legendary composer Thomas Svoboda.
Reconnecting with Mel Brown in 1987, he joined Brown’s Sextet that held sway for three years at The Hobbit on SE Gladstone.
The group needed a pianist who could arrange standards and compose new music that shied away from the synthetic irritations of ‘fusion jazz’ of the 1980’s and harkened to the days of Horace Silver’s groups or Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
It was this sextet that won the Hennessy Cognac Jazz Search, recorded Gordon Bleu: The Mel Brown Sextet Plays the Music of Gordon Lee, and performed for the 1989 Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl.
The group won the Henessey search and performance festival judge Doc Severinsen told them to “Never stop playing”.
Brown and Lee have continued to be collaborators in music and music education, as the pianist is the musical director for Brown’s summer Jazz camp in Monmouth.
The Tuesday nights at Jimmy Mak’s have birthed new music and the current CD. “You can never be bored when you play with Mel. He likes things tight and swinging and he loves to play.”
The current seven-piece group includes bassist Andre St. James and a horn section that excels at both soloing and complex ensemble playing, with Derek Sims on trumpet, Stan Bock on trombone, John Nastos on alto sax and Renato Caranto on tenor.
While staying true to the post-Bop template, the music Gordon Lee has written also reflects his travels: “Istanbul”, inspired by his year playing in Turkey; “Machangula” was written while on vacation in Mozambique; “Hoy Veo” (Today I See) came about from a trip to Cuba, a place Lee calls “The most musical place on earth.”
The new album opens with solo piano and a tribute to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (and the 1945 Sinatra hit, “Full Moon and Empty Arms”).
Lee reinterprets the themes with unexpected movements and counterpoints from the horn section and a breezy tempo.
One of the last tracks is “Change Your Dreams” and the tune seems to sum up the composer’s philosophy well.
“Life is whole lot easier if you just change up your dreams once and a while to modify your path to happiness,” he said.