HAPPY 50th BIRTHDAY: David Gordon

David Gordon with Jacqui Dankworth

Nobody active in music in the UK has the same spread of activity as pianist/ harpsichordist/ composer DAVID GORDON, who is 50 years old today. Many happy returns

As a harpsichordist he works with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the English Concert (eg a recording of CPE Bach Symphonies directed by Andrew Manze). As a composer recent commissions have included “Inspired by Bach” for his jazz trio and the London Chamber Orchestra – performed at Cadogan Hall in 2013, a premiere which prompted conductor Christopher Warren-Green to say: “I have played with many great musicians, but tonight I have shared the stage with one of England’s finest musicians and composers – David Gordon.”

He has been guest artist at the Risør Chamber Music Festival in Norway in 2012 and 2014, including appearing as director/soloist with Norwegian Chamber Orchestra; orchestra, and improvising a fugue on a theme chosen by the audience in a Handel keyboard concerto.

In jazz, he works regularly with Christian Garrick and Jacqui Dankworth. His new CD “Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band” will be released in the autumn. Another release on its way is “Butterfly’s Wing”, in a quartet with Jacqui Dankworth, Chris Garrick and Ben Davis. 

In anticipation of David Gordon’s fiftieth, Sebastian asked him some tricky questions…

o – o – o – o

LondonJazz News: You play in performing contexts with very different expectations? How?!

David Gordon: Like any social behaviour, it’s about horses for courses, and just as I function differently when playing stride or freebop, so it is with different types of earlier music. So for example playing the music of Corelli – it’s textbook stuff, and tends to elicit something of a textbook response.

But when I’m playing, as I do, in a project involving 18th century Brazilian-based Portuguese music, with exotic-sounding Portuguese singers and strumming guitars, why not bring in influences of for example Rubén González?

And early Italian baroque music, by composers like Dario Castello, often calls for a flamboyant approach to keyboard accompaniment, with all kinds of altered and dissonant harmonies, a tumultuous and melodramatic texture, the works.

LJN: And solo playing in the baroque context?

DG: Improvising a fugue – although hard work and requiring discipline – can provide great freedom, and unlike most jazz playing, you have the freedom to determine the ‘argument’, as you’re improvising a whole piece, not just a response to something existing.

LJN: There are so few improvisers in classical music….

DG: Yes, improvisation is so little expected still in a ‘classical’ and even baroque setting that the act of doing it creates a freedom in itself – that’s to say, the boundaries have already been violated, and as in logic anything can be inferred from a falsehood…. I just mean that having done something essentially ‘wrong’ gives the chance for what follows to be more easily accepted – which I find often involves deviating wildly from what’s on the printed page.

I’ve certainly found that performing written music from long ago – which has always seemed a slightly strange thing to do – becomes immediately more engaging if I in a sense collaborate with the piece’s composer and with the times and conventions of its composition.

LJN:  What about the freedoms which some performing contexts give you and the inhibitions imposed on you?

DG: Again I think it’s just about parameters. As musicians we’re constantly testing the boundaries, and after a 20th century where strangeness in art was prized above almost anything, we soon discover that inhibition is less about a struggle with socio-musical norms, and more about inner demons. I think I’d say I have the experience of freedom and inhibition in similar proportions whether playing baroque music or jazz.

LJN: Are there risks?

If you mean in the sense of a short-circuit-in-the-brain, socially-unacceptable jazz red (or blue) mist in the middle of a baroque concert…..No. Or at least I don’t think so – you’d have to ask my colleagues 🙂

The ‘risks’ are usually subtler in nature, so for example when improvising in the context of a Handel concerto, it’s easy to slip into Mozartian language, and when improvising a Mozart cadenza, it’s very easy to end up sounding like Beethoven. But things have improved in that respect: the first time I improvised a cadenza in a Bach concerto, a friend – who’s now a well-respected writer on music – said that it sounded like Wagner.

LJN: I’ve wondered where you can have possibly gone to find role models to do what you do?

I don’t know the answer to this question, so I’ll give four different non-answers.

1. Nowhere. I don’t have any. Over the years I’ve briefly got a bit excited to hear that some harpsichordists, such as the great George Malcolm, played jazz as youngsters. But as far as I know most of the classical guys who improvised and were into jazz tended to leave all that behind in order to pursue a ‘serious’ career.

2. Into the past. The composer-improviser-director-keyboard player model inspires me still – before the one role was split into four. And having done a little bit of reading, I’m interested in the way that quite a bit of baroque music is regarded as a mixture of ‘play’ and ‘research’. That’s something that helps me model what I do.

3. Wise friends. I’m very lucky to have a bunch of regular collaborators who see the potential in what I have to offer, and who encourage me to push my boundaries. In addition, some one-off meetings have yielded interesting results – such as playing banjo and harpsichord duo with the amazing Stian Carstensen last summer; doing some writing and arranging for the Brodsky Quartet; and working with visual artists, dancers and so on, encourages me to be a ‘whole’ musician. And then working on projects which involve recasting the music of Purcell, or Bach, or Scriabin, gives me the opportunity – if I’m listening carefully – to what those musicians have to tell me.

4. Appetites. I think this is what it boils down to – using our sensibilities and feelings is the best way of rendering role models redundant. So, whether I’m listening to Miles’s ESP or playing Louis Couperin’s music on the Hatchlands Ruckers harpsichord, I’m equally transported. I can’t really do without these things, and just need to accept that’s part of who I am.

LJN: Finally, are things changing, barriers falling?

DG: I have one 16-year old and a 12-year old student, both of whom seem to be equally happy and able in baroque and jazz worlds, and I’m pinning many hopes on them.


– A new CD Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band, to be released in September

– Romanesque, a concerto for recorder, strings and percussion to be premiered at Ryedale Festival, July 2015 by Charlotte Barbour-Condini and the Fitzwilliam Quartet, plus Adam Summerhayes, Malcolm Creese and Asaf Sirkis.

– Seven Sins of Tango, proposed new suite of tango-jazz for David Gordon Trio and London Concertante, CD and tour Autumn 2015 through to 2016.

– CD Release: Butterfly’s Wing, quartet with Jacqui Dankworth, Chris Garrick and Ben Davis.


Categories: miscellaneous

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