Wycliffe Gordon is more than aware that audiences perceive classical music and jazz as, at best, distant relatives. But this weekend, Lexington's newest jazz ambassador is out to make peace within the family.
"One of the most difficult things in dealing with orchestras, and just musicians who are classically trained, is to try and get them to step out of the box as a unit," Gordon says. "It's not that classical musicians don't improvise. Of course they do. But I'm kind of unconventional in the way that I like to get the most out of musicians, so we want the orchestra to sing. You have structure, but we also want to deal with that improvisational aspect."
A longstanding trombonist, composer, arranger and jazz educator, Gordon amassed an impressive jazz dossier that included an extended tenure in Wynton Marsalis' famed 1990s sextet (a jazz battalion rightly coined by The New York Times as "a special forces unit") before relocating to Lexington two years ago.
But homebound time for Gordon is scarce. He maintains an office in New York yet works and teaches as an artist-in-residence at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Ga. (he was born in nearby Waynesboro). There have been occasional Lexington showings, including a burst of performance activity in December 2013 with the Lexington Brass Band and the University of Kentucky Jazz and Wind Ensembles. But after marrying and moving to town, Gordon largely considers home time to be down time.
"I love it in Lexington," Gordon says. "It's not as far South as Georgia, but it's South. We have a lovely home. I like the pace. It's a beautiful city. But outside of going out every now and then, I don't get a chance to do too much there. By the time I get home, I really just want to stay home."
This weekend, however, begins something of a strengthening of bonds with his new home. At the heart of this reinforced connection will be two concerts that offer a new duality to the term Picnic at the Pops. The performances team the trombonist with the Lexington Philharmonic in a literal pops setting. But Pops is also the nickname of Louis Armstrong, the jazz giant whose music Gordon, his quintet and the Philharmonic will bring to life.
"The influence of Louis Armstrong goes beyond his music," Gordon says. "It's about Louis Armstrong as a musician, but it's also about Louis Armstrong as a humanitarian. What he stood for, what he played for is always going to be relevant because he was about bringing people together. It's just that music was his way of doing that. That was his tool. So to play the music of Louis Armstrong, we must recognize him as a musician, a jazz musician, a trumpet player and a vocalist. He is so many things. But most importantly, it's what people get out of the music.
"Whenever I play or listen to the music of Louis Armstrong it affects me. If I feel good, after hearing Pops, I feel better. If I don't feel so good, I feel better. Anytime you experience a performance of Louis Armstrong's music, people smile. When they listen to that music, they want to sing. That's the kind of thing that Pops was about."
Gordon paid direct homage to Armstrong on his 2011 album Hello Pops. But those recordings dealt largely with combo and small ensemble arrangements. As much of the trombonist's touring work has involved performance collaborations with larger college jazz groups, he revisited Armstrong's tunes with an eye for big band arrangements. Gordon then cut the resulting music with Lexington's DiMartino-Osland Jazz Orchestra for the June-released Somebody New album (he will perform the music with DOJO on Oct. 26 at Comedy Off-Broadway).
"Even though I don't work with my own big band, I do a lot of work with big bands, so it seemed like a good idea to do a big band record," Gordon says. "Of course, I included some of the music from Hello Pops, because I did those arrangements, too. So the CD is kind of multi-purpose, and DOJO did a wonderful job. They delivered the music at the highest level and I appreciated that."
For this weekend, though, the focus will be on performing Armstrong's music with the Philharmonic and exploring the possibilities of jazz within an orchestral context.
"When you have a large ensemble, there are so many more tonal palettes and timbres that you can deal with in terms of the music," Gordon says. "But we also have a little more structure with the orchestra in terms of the performance and the arrangements than with smaller groups.
"In dealing with orchestras and symphonies, they tend to want to have a show that is kind of regimented and scripted. But we're working on a program that will be quite diverse, so we will enjoy putting this script together."