By Dee Dee McNeil

This talented percussionist, Matt Gordy, moved to Los Angeles in 2006, leaving behind a successful career in Boston as one of their busiest drummers. Upon his West Coast arrival, Matt made the rounds of popular jazz spots, playing at Herb Alpert’s Club Vibrato, at the now defunct Blue Whale and Charlie O clubs, the popular Vitello’s and historic Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach. I asked him what was the difference between the Boston jazz scene and the L.A. jazz club scene in 2006.

“Good question. At that time, Boston was kind of limping along. Several clubs had closed. There definitely was a scene, but it wasn’t like gangbusters. When I came out here, you have to realize I was already fifty-five years old; which was not maybe the smartest thing I could have done,” he chuckles. “But my only regret, of very few, was that when I left Boston, I had been playing music for over twenty years. I went to school there and then I left for a symphony job in Venezuela (for nine years) and then I came back to Boston. Until then, I was playing a multiple of gigs, both jazz and classical. I was performing fourteen years with the Boston Lyric Opera and also the Boston Ballet, the Boston Pops; various and sundry classical gigs around town. But when I moved out to L.A. I was looked at as just a jazz guy. That has to do with the contractor. When I moved here, the whole classical side of my resume was out the window. In L.A., I was just a jazz drummer. Most don’t know I play piano. They don’t know I spent 11 years studying with Charlie Banacos, a music guru in the Boston area who taught me piano.1 I don’t like to toot my own horn too much. But now that I’ve come out with this project, I guess I have to a little bit.”

Gordy’s reputation spread like California wild fires. I can see why, as I listen to his latest release as a bandleader. Throughout this album, Matt Gordy is the exemplary force and motion behind his talented sextet.

Funny how lives sometimes go full circle. In the case of Alan Pasqua and Gordy, these two musicians have known each other for half a century. At first, they were both students at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where they originally met.

“His playing kills me! He singlehandedly steers the direction through the music on every tune. He has the ears to do that on the fly,” Matt Gordy praised Alan Pasqua’s talents and piano contribution to his recent album.

On this latest recording, “Be With Me,” the Matt Gordy Jazz Tonite Sextet roars into view, propelled by that popular Eddie Durham tune, “Topsy.” Chris Colangelo leads the way on solo bass. Matt Gordy’s drum groove inspires the band, setting an up-tempo time pattern. Alan Pasqua steps front and center, innovative and creative on piano. I enjoyed the arrangement of just drums and piano during the tune’s introduction. Then, the ensemble swings hard, giving Ron Stout’s horn an opportunity to shine. Next, Ido Meshulam soaks up the spotlight on trombone, followed by featured guest artist, Jeff Ellwood on his sensuous tenor saxophone. Matt’s latest album features four of his original compositions and six standard tunes. Track #2 is a swing version of “You and the Night and the Music” that Gordy dedicates to the late pianist Mulgrew Miller. Gordy’s arrangement is based on Mulgrew’s solo heard on drummer Tony Williams’ trio album. This song is followed by a Gordy original titled, “Camouflage,” where the bassist, Chris Colangelo, dances brightly beneath the horn lines, hand-in-hand with Gordy’s warm drum beats. Those drum licks somehow remind me of an Ahmad Jamal record I used to love. The sextet has a fireside warmth on this tune, with the horns flaming bright like red-glowing coals. Matt Gordy is not only a drummer, but a composer and arranger. I asked him what other instruments he played?

“Piano was my first instrument at the age of seven. I didn’t switch to drums until age twelve. One day, my music teacher in ninth grade played us ‘Take Five.’ I heard that two-and-a-half-minute drum solo and I said to myself, I gotta check this out. I was in the Boston area at that time, where I was raised up. I was lucky enough to have a really good drum teacher. He’s still alive today and he’s gotta be 87 or 88. His name is James Latimer. He taught at the ‘All Newton Music School.’ He gave private lessons there and only taught for a short time before moving back to Madison, Wisconsin where he still leads the big band back there,” Matt Gordy told me.

Matt Gordy childhood photo

Gordy credits a few specific drummers for sparking his creativity and greatly impressing him during his teenage years and college days.

“The first jazz record I ever bought was Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage.’ Of course, Tony Williams; I just couldn’t believe him! Then Elvin Jones; I used to listen to a lot of Coltrane. I didn’t really grow up with that much ‘Rock’ but I did listen to Jimi Hendrix and that was with Mitch Mitchell; a jazz drummer playing rock; of course, Ringo with the Beatles. But I was kind of a weird hybrid and drawn to jazz early on. I would come home every day from high school and play Maiden Voyage and then put on that John Coltrane record, that had that “Out of This World” cut on it. That blue album. Remember that one?” Matt asked me.

Of course, I had that in my collection as well, I told him.

Right after college, Matt Gordy was offered a gig with the world-renowned Maracaibo Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela. He thrived and blossomed in that 100-piece orchestra, made up of mostly foreign nationals, including thirty Americans. He grew to love the people and culture of Venezuela. He married an Argentine woman who he met there. They lived nine years in Maracaibo, but in the 1980s, the government and the economy began collapsing. The couple moved back to the United States. I asked him what it was like to live in South America and not be able to speak Spanish.

“In hind sight, I think I took ten or eleven lessons in Spanish before going on that job. Back then, everyone in school was taking French; I don’t know why, but I took French too. When you move to another country, I don’t mean vacationing, I mean working and living there; you have to be able to communicate, to understand and be understood. The good news was, I was a government employee with the 100-piece orchestra. That’s like being a post office employee in the United States. Thirty orchestra members were Americans and 30 were Polish. The conductor, Eduardo Rahn, was actually trained at Julliard. He had a master plan. He brought brass players and woodwind players from the United States. He also sought out the string players, mostly Polish, some Romanian and a couple of Argentines. Believe it or not, at that time there were only two Venezuelans in the orchestra. This is what’s known as “El Sistema,” a government sponsored program. We would go to the local barrios and take instruments. You wanna play clarinet? Drums? Trumpet? They would provide the instruments and teach the young students for free. So, they wouldn’t have to spend money out of pocket, because many couldn’t afford it. That was part of our musician contract. I started as the principal percussionist and when the timpani player left, I became the timpanist. The band members also taught at the Conservatorio Luis Paz in Venezuela. I had five to ten students. That was the whole master plan of this Eduardo Rahn conductor.

“One of the proudest things of my life was teaching Jefferson Pavajeau. This young man was impressive. I had to teach music to these kids, how to read music, play snare drum, mallets, Marinda, timpani and I was still learning Spanish myself. I taught Jefferson for five years. He applied for a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston, where I had once attended. He studied with Vic Firth, the same timpanist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra that I studied with. Jefferson won that scholarship and studied there two years. I think the money ran out and he returned home to become the principal timpanist of the Maracaibo Orchestra in Venezuela.”

While performing in Venezuela, Matt Gordy decided to form a trio and play jazz around town during the orchestra’s ‘down’ time.

“Around early 1980, I decided to start a band called El Primer Trio. It was made up of musicians from the orchestra. I had Tim Valdes on drums, Alain Rocheleau on bass and myself on keyboard. We mainly just played tunes from the Real Book. At the time, there was NO jazz at all in Maracaibo, Venezuela, which was the 2nd largest city with a population of around 2 million. All the music you heard on radio and live was salsa or Gaita, which was their folk music.”

(R to L: Tim Valdes, R.I.P., Alain Rocheleau & Matt Gordy formed a performing jazz group while in Venezuela)

After nine years of working in Venezuela, Matt Gordy returned to Boston, Massachusetts. In 1988, he got a call to play with the Boston Ballet who were performing Prokovief’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Consequently, Matt Gordy spent the next twenty-one-years playing a multitude of classical gigs, including with the Boston Pops and building a reputation as a musician who could play just about any style from Latin to jazz to pop and who was proficient in classical music too. He also wound up working with some pretty famous names you might recognize; Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, and Frank Sinatra Jr.

“Well, again it’s all about the contractor,” Matt told me. “This particular one, his name was Joe Giorganni. He was in the Boston area at that time and contracted a lot of star-studded concerts including Aretha Franklin, who I played with six times. But Joni Mitchell, I got to tell you, of all the people I played with, Joni Mitchell was one of the most unbelievable musical experiences I’ve had in that situation. She had a full orchestra, conducted by Vince Mendoza, who won a Grammy for “Both Sides Now” and rightfully so. We played the entire album, in the order of the songs recorded on that album. So, here I am with Peter Erskine, Bob Sheppard, Chuck Berghofer; I think Wallace Roney was on the tour too, from New York. We only did six or seven cities. It was a wonderful experience!”

A few years back, Matt Gordy’s Jazz Tonite Sextet tributed Jaco Pastorius. At that time, he was using Sam Hirsh on piano.

This drummer’s recently released ”Be With Me” project is a culmination of Matt Gordy’s extensive and successful world of percussion excellence. He has mastered many types and styles of playing, and because of his diverse and challenging career, his ability to play drums, piano and his background as a master percussionist, these talents infuse his composing and make his arrangements shine.

On the song, “Spring Ahead,” the musicians are back to a solid swing arrangement. Jeff Ellwood flies on his saxophone, like a joyful bird. Ron Stout joins him in-flight on trumpet. I enjoy the undertow of a melody that counters the solos and is played like a refrain that captures your imagination. I find myself whistling along with it, as though it’s an old familiar tune. For me, this is the sign of a well-written composition. I really enjoy Matt Gordy’s arrangement talents. “Chloe” is a pretty ballad written as a gift for his granddaughter’s tenth birthday. The melody is so powerful, you hear her name “Chloe” being sung over and over without any vocals. Gordy’s final original composition is the title tune, “Be With Me,” vocalized by the satin smooth voice of Sherry Williams with lyrics by Gregg Arthur. She also sings the commercial pop tune, “Sunny” arranged in a very sweet and jazzy way.

Other tunes I enjoyed were, ”Soul Eyes,” spiced and splashed with blues and inspired by McCoy Tyner’s version from the 1962 John Coltrane release. The familiar “My Shining Hour” is included and Gordy’s arrangement uses five pedal points (played by Colangelo on bass) to add both tension and interest to the tune. Matt Gordy shares that he learned this technique from Charlie Banacos, a Boston educator who mentored several jazz musicians in composing and arranging back in the day.

Gordy’s latest release mixes all the many facets and talents he has honed over the years into a memorable and enjoyable album. This month, his CD release parties begin in Temecula with Sherry Williams at the Merc, Feb 3rd. Then the Matt Gordy Jazz Tonite Sextet will be at the Sam First club by LAX on March 9th and finally, in Ventura at the Grape, April 9th.