* All italics and emboldening are editor’s ownMark Gordon, in a few of his own words.
I’ve been a professional photographer for the last 10 years, coming back to it late at the age of 50. Now I’m broadly interested in photography, film and music, coming late to music writing and recording.
We met at a jazz open mic that Mark was running. I asked him how he first started the Sydney Jazz Open Mic and why.
It’s hard to find an audience for jazz these days, and it’s really hard for even the best musicians to have a career. I see that most successful musicians have a lifetime of work behind them to make that happen. I could see that the open mic format would bring together a wide range of singers and instrumentalists to improvise together over the jazz and latin standards, and this has been a joyous thing for all concerned. It has also resulted in a long term network, for both musical collaboration and strong personal relationships.
Could you share some of the challenges you have had in sustaining it? What do you think are the important ingredients of a ‘healthy’ open mic community from your experience so far? Could you share a bit on the current scene in Sydney, and where can an interested jazz singer go for an open mic session?
It’s difficult to manage getting the core (house band) players, piano, drums, bass guitar there each time because of their varying schedules, it’s necessary to have fallback options. It’s an unpaid gig, but open mic organisers can generally get dinner and drinks for the house band from the venue. I’m careful to stress that it is something for the fun of it, not a commercial thing, and this suits most people well enough as they like making music together and its very social. I try to give people who come along an equal amount of stage time as this helps with everybody feeling valued. Some people come along to also sit in on one of the house band spots, generally about three songs works alright.
We all use the ireal app to provided the charts in the right key etc, so participants need to start using that straight up. Of course other charts can be used, but 90% is ireal. Hand-written charts are sometimes clumsy to read, and sheet music makes the chords look too small to follow.
Here are some suggestions, the last one is mine, but it’s dormant at the moment, I may re-start it in February.
On jazz music…
I think it’s about melodic music with a story to tell really, I have an old fashioned sensibility in this respect, maybe I’m out of time.
For a while you were also a radio voice! Could you share a little about how your experience as a broadcaster and music programmer for 89.7 Eastside FM in Sydney?
I did this only for about 3 months, but it was an interesting experience. I guess the main thing was working out the playlist – rather like a gig song list, it required variations in tempo, key, genre etc. in a way that sequenced well and kept the show fresh while remaining on theme.
On photography: Could you share a little about your early beginnings and when it became a career?
I went to art school and covered all mediums, but it was always the photography that grabbed me. I did almost no photography while I was in my 30s and 40s before I came back to it. Because of that I jumped directly into digital when I started again. Film photography has certain characteristics that are superior to digital, (the very fine grain gives a creamy look) however the advantages of digital far outweigh film.
Could you share a bit about your experience in Art school and your preferred mediums at that time? Did you have an idea or direction of your career in the visual arts field then?
I was in my teens most of the time, and it was the mid 1970s so I had no directions at all, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a direction! They were very different days, things just sort of unfolded.
On songwriting, or any forms of fiction or non-fiction writing: Have you always had a love for literature? Could you share a little about how you came to writing lyrics eventually?
Yes I’ve always had a strong passion for reading literature and reference material. I’m sure this has influenced the way I express myself. To me songs need to use everyday language to make them relatable. My first song was Wrong Town, and just kind of jumped into my head! A friend of mine often used the term “wrong town”, and I thought it made an interesting title. This song was also influenced by my love for the film noir genre.
Having multiple interests: Is there a relation(ship) between these different faculties and do you find it challenging to manage craftsmanship in all of them? Any tips for those who share a similar inclination?
These things are inextricably linked, both on the creative side and technically, which is helpful. For example in photography, film, and audio engineering the concepts such as dynamic range, resolution are very important. The higher the resolution, the better the chance of something sounding silky and natural. It also makes files more robust when editing. Creativity matters, but the best technology is also required to make the result strong enough for the commercial market.
On collaborations: I have had the honour of singing a few of your original compositions with Didi Mudigdo, and really enjoyed the music as well as lyrics. Could you share a little about how this collaboration first started, and your journey as a collaborating lyricist since?
I came up with the Wrong Town lyrics, in a standard AABA jazz form then approached Didi to work on it together, we sat down and hammered it out in a couple of hours. There have been slight revisions since then, but not much. I think both of us being so familiar with the form, musically and lyrically was very helpful, certainly I wouldn’t have been able to do that even five years before.
With most of the songs I’ve come up with the lyrics first, but on one called “Oceans Away”, Didi sent me the tune and I wrote the lyrics from there, it was great to try it that way around. So certainly it can work either way. I’m always blown away by how Didi can weave a tune around the lyrics, amazing really to hear my words come to life that way.
It’s important to allow for changes musically and lyrically along the way, so it’s very much a collaboration.
How and where do you draw your inspiration from?
Inspiration wise, I’m hopelessly nostalgic, and to me a song is like a little movie about a slice of life. The hardest part is making the songs less corny and cliché (always the case on the first draft!).
I find inspiration in the just things that happen in life, this part of it comes easy, and there are a lot of feelings that we all share. Try to sound original, it’s often the missing ingredient. Look for hooks in both the idea of the song and the music itself. Use a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary.
When asked to elaborate on the ‘just things in life’ and the ‘feelings that we all share’…
…just the hope, joy, sadness, anticipation, warmth, coldness, dreams, ambitions etc that make up a life – I would let the lyrics speak for themselves on that one. I sometimes exaggerate the theme of the story to give it a bit more drama than what it is actually based on.
Did you, as a lover of visual arts as well as music and music production, ever feel ‘torn’ and compelled to decide on one particular faculty to focus on growing your craft in the chosen field? Was having multiple interests ever a ‘distraction’ to you? And was there a need for more attention on time-management to focus on craftsmanship?
Well, the conventional wisdom is not to do too many different things and I agree with that in theory. However I’m fairly well across the photography these days, so I can do that readily enough, it’s the client and business management that’s tiring. Certainly it is distracting to work across different mediums, but it’s more of a training issue. If I keep working on the sound side, I think I’ll get more used to it, and find it easier to to than is the case at the moment.
One thing has been challenging going from a 2D media (photo), to a linear medium. Working on a flat file you see the changes directly as you edit. With music (and film), it’s necessary to keep playing it, or part of it, many times as you edit. It’s difficult to be patient with that process, but I’m getting used to it.
It’s a journey.
I’ve recently started watching this watershed lecture series by Leonard Bernstein, its a very broad brush thing and well worth the viewing:
Do you have a dream? Do you have any upcoming projects that you are looking forward to?
Hmm, well, it would be nice to have some commercial success, but that’s actually secondary, I love the process. I’ll be doing more songwriting but it’s a very competitive market.
Find Mark, the music, community & his photography here…
+ at Sydney Jazz Open Mic: https://www.facebook.com/groups/sydneyjazzopenmic/
+ Mark Corporate Photography: http://www.corporatephotographysydney.com.au/
+ ‘Wrong Town’: Mark Gordon and Didi Mudigdo’s first composition together as performed by Mario Serio (pi), Didi Mudigdo (ba), Juliet Pang (vo) in 2015 at SingJazz Club.