Versatility, open mind keys to bass player’s journey

The bass player may not be the flashiest member of the band, but odds are, he or she is probably the coolest. Wells Gordon is a very cool guy, though he’d never make it obvious. He’s the bass player. He’s a laid back dude.

Gordon (photo at left by Bruce Cassaday), a Skowhegan native who moved back to Maine in June 2011 after living all over the country and the world, is by day an audio media instructor at the New England School of Communications in Bangor. By night, he plays in more bands and ensembles than he can remember off the top of his head. From Gypsy Caravan, the Belfast-based gypsy jazz group that will play on April 28 as part of the Belfast Free Range Music Festival, to longtime Maine reggae band Catchavibe, to the G Majors, the jazz group that coalesces around the Tuesday Night Jazz Jams at Nocturnem Drafthaus in Bangor, it’s clear that Gordon is a musical butterfly.

“I float around,” said Gordon. “I learn a lot. It keeps me on my toes.”

Gordon was born in Skowhegan, but as the child of a military family and a restless musical adventurer, he’s lived all over — from his earliest years in Maine, to a stint in Thailand. As a young high schooler in Minnesota, he picked up violin, but switched to upright bass when he saw 80s rockabilly revival band the Stray Cats on MTV.

“That upright bass was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” said Gordon. “I had to have one. I switched right then.”

In California, he got into punk rock, like the Dead Kennedys and the Butthole Surfers. In Nashville, he immersed himself in the local rock scene, developed an appreciation for country and bluegrass, and began playing jazz on the side.

“What I liked about jazz was that you didn’t have to rehearse all the time,” he said. “You could just show up and play. I like that. I just want to play.”

Between living in Nashville and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Gordon developed a versatile sound applicable to a range of genres. In Chapel Hill, he performed and recorded with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a progressive string band who regularly perform in Maine. He also played with Katherine Whalen of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a now-defunct but beloved old timey jazz ensemble. Not to mention his work with countless jazz ensembles at North Carolina Central University, Western Carolina University and Elizabeth City State University and in and around Chapel Hill and Asheville, NC. He even played in a Lithuanian folk group.

“I felt like Tom Waits was going to walk through the door at any moment,” said Gordon. “I don’t think there’s a genre I wouldn’t work in.”

But family was a strong pull to come back to Maine – along with a position teaching audio engineering at NESCOM. Since moving back, Gordon has immersed himself in the eastern Maine music scene, not least of which is the weekly G Majors gig at Nocturnem, which features a revolving cast of musicians ranging from fellow NESCOM instructor and guitarist par excellence Josh Small to Main Street Music Studios bossman and drummer Andrew Clifford. There’s plenty of other bands, too, like Mesamis, another Gypsy ensemble, and the backing group for Mt. Desert Island harpist and songwriter Liza Rey. Before he was a teacher, Gordon was a musician, and he feels that background gives him a unique edge in the classroom.

“I’m always hustling. You’ve got to hustle if you want to make a living as a musician,” he said. “I think one of the reasons I love teaching is that I come to it from a musician’s viewpoint. I can listen to something and understand it on both a musicians level and an audio engineers level. I think a lot of our students have the same background, and that’s something really important for them as creative people. You can listen, and you can perform. It makes you really well-rounded.”

For more information on Wells Gordon’s many musical projects, visit wellsgordonmusic.com.

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, UMaine graduate, proud Bangorian and a writer and editor for Bangor Metro Magazine, the Weekly and the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food to all the cool things going on in the Greater Bangor area. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra. She's interested in everything that happens in Maine. Albums for review are accepted digitally only; please no CDs.