Several years ago, before Concord purchased the holdings of Fantasy Records, I had the honor of writing the liner notes for an immense box set of Dexter Gordon’s complete recordings for Prestige. I researched and wrote the essay while simultaneously putting together a large assignment for DownBeat that involved interviewing a cohort of saxophonists about either their favorite musician or their five favorites on a particular label (can’t remember which), which gave me an opportunity to inquire about their sense of the Gordon’s impact. Maxine Gordon graciously cooperated as well. Gordon’s 89th birth anniversary is today, and, for the occasion, I’m pleased to be able to append these notes.
The Complete Dexter Gordon on Prestige (Notes):
One day in 1945, on his way home from school, a 14-year saxophone beginner named Jackie McLean made a pit stop at a Harlem luncheonette on 125th Street and 7th Avenue. As he waited for his hot dog and root beer, he heard emanating from the backroom jukebox the joyful noise of two distinctly different tenor saxophones exchanging a string of choruses over a thunderous tom-tom shuffle.
“It was ‘Blowing the Blues Away’ by Billy Eckstine’s big band, and that was the first time I heard Dexter Gordon,” McLean recalls. Not long after that, a friend across the street played me ‘Dexter’s Deck.’ That did it. I had been in love with just one saxophone player—Lester Young. But listening to Dexter taught me how to swing.”
Few jazz musicians have stamped the vocabulary of their instrument so definitively at such a tender age as Dexter Keith Gordon, who was not yet 22 when he recorded that iconic tenor battle with Gene Ammons. But he was already a seasoned veteran. The son of a Los Angeles doctor who counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton as patients, and a private student of noted L.A. educator Lloyd Reese, Gordon joined Hampton in December 1940, two months before his 18th birthday. A devotee of Lester Young’s records with Count Basie, he’d seen Young play the previous October on Basie’s first California visit. “Lammar Wright, Jr. and I ditched school that day to catch the first show, which I think was at eleven in the morning,” Gordon told Ira Gitler in Swing to Bop. “They opened with ‘Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,’ and Lester came out soloing—he was just fantastic. I really loved the man. He was melodic, rhythmic, had that bittersweet approach. And of course, in his pre-Army days he had such a zest for living. It felt so good to hear him play.”
On the road with Hampton, Gordon mastered the ritualistic dueling tenors function, telling ebullient stories with pretty notes, Lester Young style, in counterstatement to the brash, declarative Herschel Evans tales of Illinois Jacquet. Midway through 1941, Hampton’s band came to New York to work Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom opposite Jay McShann, whose alto saxophonist was a 21-year-old virtuoso named Charlie Parker.
“Bird had a lot of Lester in his playing, and also Jimmy Dorsey, who was a master saxophonist,” Gordon recalled in Gary Giddins’s essay “Dexter,” from Visions of Jazz: The First Century. “He was playing so much saxophone, new tunes, new harmonic conceptions; he extended the chords, altering them fluidly. Pres stayed around ninths—he must have listened to Ravel and Debussy—but Bird went all the way up the scale.” On various New York visits in ́41 and ́42, the aspirant heard trumpet modernists Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Harris, and Victor Coulson. “I heard [the new sound] gradually here and there,” he told Gitler. “Not in an organized band or even with all the cats playing that kind of style in a group.”
Gordon wasn’t doctrinaire about his influences. He knew the Coleman Hawkins lexicon inside out, and drew inspiration from Dick Wilson (1911-1941), a much-admired tenorman with Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy. In The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller writes that Wilson executed “sinuous and unpredictable” lines “with consummate control. . .interposing quick flurries of notes with more sustained phrases,” and projected them with a tone distinctive for being “at once imbued with a searing old-style intensity and a subtle ‘modern’ coolness.”
During the first nine months of 1944, Gordon refined his skills on jobs with drummer Lee Young (Lester’s older brother), Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong. In October he received a call to join Eckstine’s seminal bebop orchestra at Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theater. Maxine Gordon, his widow, relates: “Dexter told Louis, ‘I’ve got to go; that’s my boys.’ ‘Is it a matter of money?’ He said, ‘No, the money’s fine.’ ‘Well, what is it?’ ‘I’ve got to play that music.’ He was like, ‘OK, I get it.’ Dexter said that the publicity about Louis being anti-bebop was way overstated, that Louis encouraged the young musicians. He said, ‘Try your new thing. What we played was new!’”
Soon after recruiting Gordon, Eckstine hired a young Chicago tenorist named Gene Ammons, a Coleman Hawkins disciple. For the next ten months, a Gordon-Ammons cutting contest became a highly anticipated nightly ritual, establishing both youngbloods as rising stars.
“Dexter was a child of Lester Young,” Maxine Gordon says. “He tried to play like Lester, thought he played just like him, looked like him and acted like him. Lester was his number-one man. But Gene Ammons was his favorite tenor player among his contemporaries. Dexter said that Gene Ammons could do something that he was never able to attain, which is to play one note and affect the people so much that they fall on the ground and faint. They didn’t have much time for their solos. Dexter would work out, play everything he knew, show all he’d been working on. Gene’s ears were so good that he would come up and play everything back, and then play a low B-flat or a note where people would just go ‘Wow!’ Dexter said he learned that if you only worked on technique and speed, and neglected tone, projection, and feeling, you weren’t playing the tenor.
“Dexter told me that he once yelled at Jug, ́Stop playing back my shit! Play your own shit; don’t play mine.` Gene was very sweet and quiet and sensitive, and he took it badly. Dexter and Lammar Wright went to hear Basie. They went out back, and Lester was there. Lester said to him, ́I heard you had a beef with Brother Gene.` People talk. Dexter said, ́Yeah. I’m tired of him stealing my shit.` And Lester said to him, ́Oh, really? You want to be careful about that.` Then Dexter was like, ́Oh my God, I’m stealing every note from Lester.` He was just mortified. ́Okay, I get it.` Then he went and apologized to Gene and tried to be quiet. He said he never forgot that.”
Blending harmonic lessons from Dizzy Gillespie—Eckstine’s musical director and first trumpet until the end of 1944—with tutelage from Ammons in the art of efficiently telling a story with notes and tones, Gordon learned to conjure concise, melodic riffs from extended chord structures. Although he retained Young’s horizontal phrasing and low-vibrato tone, he gradually shed the skin of his idol, projecting a robust timbre and surging attack that appealed to audiences in Southern tobacco warehouses, Western dance halls, and soul lounges in Northern inner cities. He sidemanned on Gillespie’s “Blue and Boogie” in February 1945 for Guild, and appeared with Charlie Parker on sessions led by trombonist Trummy Young and pianist Sir Charles Thompson. He led his first date in December 1945, and for the next three years—recording in New York for Savoy and in Los Angeles for Dial—tossed off a succession of attractive three-minute riff tunes with ad hoc quartets and quintets, including “The Duel,” a tenor joust with West Coast bop avatar Teddy Edwards, and “The Chase,” an epic encounter with L.A.-based tenorman Wardell Gray.
Both Gordon and Gray are in particularly good form on “Move,” taped at Hollywood’s Hula Hut on August 27, 1950. It was originally issued on The Wardell Gray Memorial Album, and is the first of the 88 tracks that comprise The Complete Prestige Recordings of Dexter Gordon. Over an unwavering, crackling beat from L.A. modernists Jimmy Bunn, Billy Hadnott, and Chuck Thompson, Gray uncorks a string of flaming, elegant, thematically linked choruses, constantly building momentum. There follows a classic solo by trumpeter Clark Terry, in town with the Count Basie Octet; fully cognizant of Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, he’s completely his own man. Perhaps aware that it was Young’s 41st birthday, Gordon leaps in (4:22) with an eloquent stream-of-consciousness monologue that continues for 3 minutes and 35 seconds. Swinging fiercely and never repeating himself, he choreographs a continuous flow of melodic ideas, referencing Lestorian fragments as signifying guideposts, throwing in for good measure a well-timed phrase from “Let’s Fall in Love.”
It’s the kind of well-wrought eruption that caused Gordon’s peers and acolytes to keep him firmly in their sights. “Dexter was a tough man to beat in a cutting session,’” says Von Freeman (b.1922), who had first-hand knowledge of the fact. “He was very modern-thinking, could play the stew out of the horn, and you could tell he had studied a whole lot. He was among the very first modern tenor players to break away from Pres, to start emphasizing minor IXs, major IXs, XIIIs, and flatted Vs. In other words, he had some Bird in him early, which gave him an edge among a lot of tenor players who were playing like Pres, since Pres didn’t stress those notes, though he used them in the context of his normal playing. In bebop you start in or end on those type of notes, and that makes your playing different to people who study music. Dexter to me was that stop on tenor between Pres and Hawk, and then Coltrane.”
“Besides the gods, Lester and Hawk and Don Byas, Dexter and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis were the guys that guys my age were listening to when we were coming up,” says Sonny Rollins (b.1930), who grew up in Harlem. “Dexter made a great contribution to the bebop language; in fact, I think he defined it during a certain period. He transcribed a lot of the stuff that Bird was doing, and brought that approach to the tenor without being a copier. He was an important figure in bringing people along. Coltrane at one time sounded a lot like Dexter, and I still hear that lineage. And one time when I was in Chicago, this guy had heard one of my records, and he said, ‘Yeah, man, you sound great; you sound like Dexter.’ I have nothing but praise for him.”
“Around Philadelphia, we all wanted to be like Dexter,” recalls Jimmy Heath (b.1926). “He had this relaxed, behind-the-beat way of playing that made him swing harder than most of the saxophone players. Coltrane, Benny Golson, and myself all were keyed into his sound, and we all were listening to his records, because we were so impressed with the way he adapted the bebop style for the tenor saxophone. One of his records was ‘Setting the Pace,’ and he set the pace.”
“Dexter could take those common chords and string a melody to it like an expensive necklace of pearl beads,” says Golson (b.1929). “His ideas were completely different than Don Byas and Lester Young. To me, they sounded a little more hip, and I guess they were, because he was much younger than them, and he came onto the scene with a new breath of air, so to speak. He had a lot of soul in what he was doing. He was suave—his movements were that way, and his speech was so smooth and deliberate; he thought about what he was going to say. He wasn’t a person that you knew for playing an abundance of notes, though that didn’t mean he couldn’t. He wasn’t approaching his tenor saxophone the same way Charlie Parker approached his alto saxophone. Charlie Parker played a lot of double-time things. With Dexter it wasn’t a flurry of notes. It was the way he played the notes that he played! It was like he gave more attention to each note rather than a slew of ideas. Charlie Parker came with rapid fire, and Dexter came with single shots, but they were well-aimed. And it was those shots that touched my heart and my brain.”
Six-and-a-half feet tall and bronze-complected, with sculpted, florid cheekbones, full lips, and lidded, ironic eyes, Gordon oozed charisma. “Dexter was a movie star on the saxophone,” says McLean. “My aunt Miriam opened my room door one day when I was practicing and said, ‘Jackie, last night I was on 52nd Street, and this tall, beautiful guy named Dexter something was playing, and oh my God, he was so great.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute! That’s Dexter Gordon.’ I had a little windup record player, and I wound it up and put on ‘Dexter’s Deck’ for her.”
McLean recalls hearing Gordon play several afternoon jam sessions at the Lincoln Square Center, a converted stable in Manhattan’s west sixties. “The first time, Ben Webster and a bunch of other people were playing,” McLean states. “The next time I went, I stepped up with my dollar to get in, and the guy asked me, ‘How old are you?’ I tried to drop my voice down. I said, ‘18.’ ‘No. Come on, kid. Get out of the line.’ I was dejected, and went outside. Then I saw Dexter coming, and I ran up to him in the street. ‘Mr. Gordon, I want to go in to see you play, but they won’t let me in—I’m too young.’ Dexter said, ‘How much does it cost?’ ‘A dollar.’ ‘Give me your dollar. Just stay with me.’ I walked right in with him. Every time he tried to get away from me, to talk to the ladies or something, there I was! When he went to unpack his horn, I was looking in his case. Finally, he said, ‘Go have a seat, man.’ Ben Webster was already playing onstage, and Dexter walked out and joined him on ‘Cottontail,’ and tried to steal the scene. Ben didn’t like it too much.
“Ten years later, I went to the West Coast with Art Blakey, and Dexter showed up and started talking. I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, Dexter, do you remember me?’ He said, ‘You lost a lot of weight, man, but I know who you are. You’re the pest.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I remember you, man. You were a chubby little kid. You used to be in my face all the time.’”
In Eckstine’s band, Gordon and reed section mates Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker, and John Jackson dubbed themselves the Unholy Four; their experiments with heroin quickly led to addiction. Sonny Rollins recalls encountering Gordon at a Forties dance at the Hunts Point Ballroom in the Bronx. “Dexter was strung out at the time, and I was a young cat whose mother had just bought me my brand-new tenor,” Rollins recalls. “He didn’t have a horn, so I lent it to him. He was already an established star; I was just a kid. But he didn’t steal my horn!”
Around this time, Don Schlitten—who went on to produce four of the albums that appear on this collection—first saw Gordon at a Sunday afternoon jam session at the Club 845 on Prospect Avenue and 160th Street in the Bronx. Soon after, he went to Lincoln Square Center to see his idol at a welcome-home party for the Billy Eckstine band. “They had Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Leo Parker, Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, Monk on piano, and John Simmons on bass,” Schlitten recalls. “Dexter was supposed to be there and so was Charlie Ventura. Charlie Ventura couldn’t make it, so he sent in a sub, who was Don Byas. The show was from 3 to 7, and everybody was waiting for Dexter. At 7 o’clock, the curtains parted, and Dexter stuck his head out of the curtains and waved to everybody hello. But he never played! Then Symphony Sid or one of those cats came out and said that Dexter would be here next week.”
Gordon remained enmeshed in his habit throughout the Fifties. He relocated to California in 1949, spent 1953 and 1954 incarcerated at the Chino State Penitentiary, and went back to jail soon after his encounter with McLean. He didn’t get out until 1960. Gordon didn’t like to talk about those years, telling friends simply, “It saved my life.” Maxine Gordon notes that, unlike Ammons, who spent most of the Sixties in a maximum security lockup in Joliet, Illinois, Gordon “always played, always had his horn. The jail had a band. All the best players were in jail at that time.”
On parole in 1960, Gordon led a house band at the Zebra Lounge and joined the Los Angeles production of The Connection, the Jack Gelber play about heroin addicts. Pianist Freddie Redd—who wrote the score—and McLean had performed in the famous 1959-60 New York stage and film production; in L.A., Gordon led an onstage quartet through several of his minor-key originals, and, writes Gitler in his vivid chapter on Gordon in Jazz Masters of the ‘40s, “handled an important speaking role that called for a lot of ad-libbing.”
During the play’s run, Cannonball Adderley approached Gordon to do a one-off date with Jazzland. The result is Resurgence, and a fine album it is, though the back story described by trumpeter Martin Banks (b.1936) indicates that Gordon was remaining in character outside the theater. “Leonard Feather and Shorty Rogers and all sorts of people were in the control room,” Banks told a reporter in Austin, Texas, his hometown, where he currently lives and plays. “Dexter had some manuscript up on the music stand, and he was pointing at it. But there was nothing written on the paper! He said, quietly: ‘We’re gonna make up this date, because they’ve already paid me for the music. And I’ve spent the money.’”
In point of fact, Gordon makes only two contributions to his comeback album. On the hard-charging “Home Run,” the front line slams out three bars of a chord not dissimilar to the opening of Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie” before resolving into the form of Ray Brown’s “Two Bass Hit.” Propelled by the unrelenting swing of Larance Marable, the “West Coast Philly Joe Jones,” Gordon, Banks, and trombonist Richard Boone—the latter an Arkansan who later gained notoriety with Count Basie for his authoritative “mumbles” vocalese, and moved in 1970 to Copenhagen and an eventual sinecure in the Danish Radio Orchestra—take concise, pithy solos. The tenorist also offers a soulful reading of “Jodi,” an original ballad that he would revisit in 1965 on the Blue Note album Clubhouse.
Saving the day is pianist Charles “Dolo” Coker (1927-1989), a Hartford, Connecticut native whose c.v. included gigs and recordings with Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, and Philly Jones. The first of Coker’s four compositions is “Dolo,” a twisty “Rhythm” variant taken at a racehorse tempo. Gordon tears through the theme with impeccable articulation and, showing no strain, spins a solo that illustrates McLean’s contention that “Dexter was the master of swinging and playing just a little back of the beat, and then switching over and getting in front of the beat, like Bird often did.” Coker’s “Lovely Lisa” is a tipping blues with a Basie flavor, tight three-horn voicings, and nice changes that Gordon gobbles up; Boone’s vocalized solo crosses Bennie Green fluency with raspy Henry Coker tone. More a tango than a rumba, “Affair In Havana” affords everyone a solo, while “Field Day” finds Coker presenting his own take on the vocabulary of Tadd Dameron—Gordon’s strutting, pellucid solo is a highlight.
Not long after Resurgence hit the street, Gordon signed with Blue Note and moved to New York. Between April 1961 and August 1962 he made four superb studio albums—Doin’ Allright, Dexter Calling, Go, and A Swinging Affair—that reignited his career. Unable to procure a New York cabaret card, Gordon had trouble parlaying critical acclaim into work, and he extended a September 1962 engagement in London at Ronnie Scott’s into a two-year European sojourn. Gordon spent part of 1963 in France, where he made the classic Our Man in Paris with Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke, and received warm greetings in Copenhagen, which became his base until 1976. There he married, fathered a son, drove a Volvo station wagon and rode a bicycle, had a piano in his house in suburban Valby, performed steadily around Scandinavia and continental Europe as a combo leader and member of various big bands, and took working vacations in the Canary Islands.
“Dexter did things when he was living in Copenhagen that he never was able to do before,” says Maxine Gordon. “He would practice on his piano and work on music. But he wasn’t working on it because he had a record date that night or that week. It changed his way of playing and his way of thinking. He thought longer and worked with bigger ideas. You don’t want to think of his time in Europe as one when he fell into obscurity, and then comes back and is rediscovered. He was very active. He played with a lot of American musicians as well as Europeans. He played all the festivals. He could have worked all the time. He was very happy about this period of creativity, and I think his playing reflects it.”
After recording his final albums for Blue Note in New York on May 27-28, 1965, Gordon returned to Copenhagen, working most of the summer in town at the Jazzhus Montmartre. He took a break on July 31st to play the jazz festival in Molde, Norway, which included a jam session with tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin (1930-1970), an early Gordon admirer and an explosive stylist with a penchant for stratospheric flights through standard songs. Out of Dallas, Texas, Ervin signed with Prestige in 1963 after several strong sideman appearances with Charles Mingus and dates for Bethlehem, Savoy and Candid. By 1965 he’d recorded four freewheeling albums under Don Schlitten’s supervision, two with an anything-goes rhythm section—iconoclastic stride-to-avant pianist Jaki Byard, virtuoso bassist Richard Davis and Boston drum giant Alan Dawson. That October, Schlitten put together a tenor summit tour of Germany featuring Ervin, Gordon and Sonny Rollins, and booked a Munich studio to record Ervin with Byard, Dawson and bassist Reggie Workman. He decided to contract with Gordon to reprise the Molde meeting and documented a tenor battle between the master and his acolyte on two classic riff tunes from Gordon’s Savoy years.
The ensuing album, Setting The Pace, is a must-hear of the two-tenor genre. On the title track Gordon solos first and Ervin second, while on the Rhythm-rooted “Dexter’s Deck,” Gordon follows Ervin’s signifying deconstruction with a quote-laden down-the-middle testimonial that lasts 9 minutes and 35 seconds and justifies Schlitten’s comment: “It’s one of the classic saxophone solos ever put on record, like a summation of his entire playing before and after and during.”
Schlitten and Gordon remained in touch, and in February 1969, Gordon signed a two-album contract with Prestige. He arrived in New York in April, gigged a week at the Village Vanguard with Barry Harris, Ron Carter, and Mickey Roker, and recorded Tower of Power and More Power, his first studio dates in America since 1960. Their release over the next nine months caused elation amongst Gordon’s still sizable American fan base who had lost track of their hero over the preceding decade.
“We were going to do a session with James Moody and one with just the rhythm section,” Schlitten recalls. “Dexter came to my little studio on the Grand Concourse, and went through a batch of sheet music that I had there, took out his horn, and started to play all these different songs. I was sitting there, digging the private concert. He chose ‘Those Were the Days’ and ‘Meditation,’ which he recorded that week, and ‘Some Other Spring,’ which he didn’t.”
Blended for the LPs Tower of Power and More Power, the dates appear here in chronological sequence. Moody sounds out of sorts on the April 2nd performance, which has a tentative, edgy quality despite the synchronous rhythm section (Barry Harris, Buster Williams, and Albert “Tootie” Heath). Unfazed, Gordon roars through “Montmartre,” a up minor blues that he’d written about a year before the session. He navigates the sweet changes of Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird” with swinging lusciousness; at Schlitten’s instigation, the tenors juxtapose Dameron’s melody with “Half Nelson,” a Miles Davis variant that the trumpeter recorded on his first leader session, in 1947, with Charlie Parker on tenor saxophone. A Dameron connoisseur, Harris plays laid-back Bud Powell lines on both takes of “Lady Bird” and and comps valiantly throughout. On the alternate take of “Sticky Wicket,” a minor blues by Gordon, Moody responds disjointedly to Gordon’s quotefest; on the master take, Gordon concocts a new invention, and Moody plays only on the opening and closing unisons.
“Dexter usually took everything in his stride,” Schlitten notes. “He’d been around, understood everything and everybody, and did what he had to do.”
He’s in peak form on April 4th, which produced high-level performances. The tenorist digs into “Those Were the Days,” a Gene Raskin tune that was getting much airplay at the time. Inspired by the loose camelwalk tempo, Gordon—now 46—digs deep into the nostalgic lyric (“Once upon a time there was a tavern, where we used to raise a glass or two; Remember how we laughed away the hours, and dreamed of all the great things we would do. . .”). Shortly after his first jail stay, Gordon penned “Stanley the Steamer” for a 1955 Bethlehem date led by West Coast bop drummer Stan Levey. Fourteen years later, the pulse on this blues stomp shifts from mid tempo to a sleek up-medium, and Gordon devours the changes in his updated manner.
According to Thorbjørn Sjøren’s authoritative discography, Long Tall Dexter, Gordon first documented “Rainbow People” on a Stockholm radio broadcast the preceding January 20th, with pianist Bobo Stenson and expat bass giant Red Mitchell. Like much of his Copenhagen writing, it’s more a composition than a tune, with attractive changes that beg for a lyric. Gordon and Barry Harris swing deep into the melody deeply on both takes. Both bopwalk eloquently on two takes of “Boston Bernie,” a Gordon variant on the 1939 Jerome Kern song “All the Things You Are” (from the musical Very Warm for May) and on “Fried Bananas,” Gordon’s ingenious up tempo version of “It Could Happen to You,” by Rodgers and Hart. First documented in performance at Amsterdam’s Paradiso Club on February 5, 1969, “Fried Bananas” became an enduring staple of Gordon’s repertoire. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditation” is Gordon’s first investigation of a bossa nova. As Ira Gitler wrote on the liner notes for More Power, “Talk about creating a mood—Dex does it in all registers of the horn with a gorgeous sound and a feeling that envelops one with fireside warmth. Heavy romance. I have often mused how groovy it would have been to hear Pres and Bird work out on a bossa nova. Now I have a better idea.”
The April 4th meeting concludes with the unissued “Dinner for One Please, James,” a bittersweet ballad by Michael Carr, perhaps chosen by Gordon to signify on Moody’s absence from the session. Barely straying from the melody, Gordon lets his tone do the work, wringing out all the bathos.
His trip already paid for, Gordon set up several gigs to make it all worthwhile. These included a May 4th engagement at Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society with a strong pickup group featuring pianist Bobby Timmons (1935-1974). Out of Philadelphia, Timmons had risen to prominence a decade earlier with Art Blakey, for whom he composed such soul jazz classics as “Moanin’” and “’Dat Dere.” Here he draws on bop and blues roots, playing with great imagination, intensity, and finesse on a hopelessly out-of-tune piano. Bassist Victor Gaskin and veteran drummer Percy Brice round out the unit. Both sets were recorded for posterity, and Fantasy released them on the CDs LTD and XXL in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The famous Gordon joie de vivre is evident on every note.
“The way he plays on the Left Bank gig is incredible!” Joe Lovano states. “I played there a few times with Woody Herman’s band and also with Jack McDuff in the mid-Seventies. It was like an afternoon into the evening party. Now, Dexter got you in different ways in different periods. In the Sixties he was up on his articulation and up on the beat, and his tone and presence and interaction with the rhythm section changed. A lot of joy always came through in Dexter’s playing, and it’s probably the thing about him that influenced me most. Just the way he hit one note made you feel great.”
LTD annotator Larry Hollis counts 11 Gordon choruses on the set-opening “Broadway,” a flagwaver whose co-composer, tenorist Teddy McRae, brought the youngster to Armstrong in 1944. Lester Young made the song famous with Basie in 1940, and Gordon memorably covered it on Our Man in Paris in 1963. He uncorks a lengthy discourse on the various things that the aforementioned “Boston Bernie” is. The release of the Left Bank tapes would be worthwhile if only for Gordon’s sensual tenor reading of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” which he would record on soprano sax for Steeplechase in March 1975. Feeling his vonce before the soulfully enspirited Baltimore congregation, Gordon counts off the tempo for “Blues Up and Down,” the ritualistic set-closer, “roaring out the blocks hotter than a bowl of three-alarm chili, expatiating inventive verse after verse until the total rings up to an astounding 40,” in the words of Hollis.
The band picks up where they left off with Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” beginning with an intense 7:30 solo by Gordon. Timmons plays six blues-inflected minutes; Gaskin bows fiddle style for another four, and Brice steps out of his tipping role for an exciting five-minute display that exploits his quick hands and strong sense of organization. To the crowd’s delight, the leader digs into the famous refrain of Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” and develops the melody—with a nod to Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You”—at a leisurely lope. Timmons matches the mood, and Gordon returns for a heartfelt recapitulation and coda, quoting “How Are Things in Glocca Morra.” Gordon had recorded Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” at the Montmartre in 1967, and addresses it similarly, stating the theme over a Latin groove, as played by Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis on the 1958 album Something Else. At 3 minutes, the beat changes to 4/4 swing and Gordon notches up into the next gear, launching a four-minute explosion. Timmons and Gaskin have their final say, and Gordon swings through his summation and a stimulating series of exchanges with Brice, concluding an inspired sermon of tenor saxophony with the opening bars of “Soy Califa” (“I am the caliph”), a 1962 opus from Go!.
Prestige renewed Gordon’s option, and assigned Schlitten to produce the summer 1970 sessions that became The Panther and The Jumpin’ Blues. Three weeks before this American sojourn, he joined the Junior Mance Trio for a radio broadcast from the Montreux Jazz Festival. Mance’s label, Atlantic, couldn’t use it, and sold the master to Prestige in 1974, enabling Gordon to fulfill his contractual obligations to the label.
Addressing a good piano, Mance—out of Chicago, he was Gene Ammons’s pianist of choice from 1947 to 1950 and Cannonball Adderley’s from 1956 to 1958—solos and comps with as much authority and vigor as any pianist who appears on this corpus. Gordon responds in kind; playing with all the power and discursive invention he customarily brought to club sets, he projects a polish and concision apropos to a concert setting. He surges fluently through “Fried Bananas,” evokes the bittersweet aura of Ellington’s voluptuous “Sophisticated Lady,” and roars cohesively through Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning.” After Mance postulates a few McCoy Tyner chords, Gordon states the melody of “Body and Soul”—the first citation in Sjøren is a February 1968 Frankfurt concert; later that year, Gordon recorded it with Teddy Wilson on Danish TV—and cuts to the chase for a soaring, operatic improvisation on the “Coltrane changes,” concluding with an extended coda that references Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now.” Gordon first tackled “Blue Monk” on a May 1970 recording with vocalist Karin Krog and pianist Kenny Drew. Here, backed by Mance’s soulful chords and Oliver Jackson’s subtle backbeat, he develops an ingeniously anthological treatise with vocal inflections, including a variation on “Parker’s Mood,” inexorably building the dramatic arc. Mance plays the blues as only he can, bassist Martin Rivera has a tasty solo, and Gordon starts his final chorus with the “Reinhardt, Reinhardt” motif of “Harvard Blues,” a 1942 Jimmy Rushing-Don Byas vehicle with Count Basie. The set concludes with the premiere performance of “The Panther,” an original minor blues in 5/4 with a catchy melody and a funky feel.
In New York’s RCA studios three weeks later with Tommy Flanagan (1930-2001) on piano, Larry Ridley on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums for his first formal session of the summer, Gordon has chiseled out a point of view on “The Panther.” Midway through his decade-long stint as Ella Fitzgerald’s pianist and musical director, Flanagan follows the leader’s sturdy arcs and planes with a graceful sketch. Thus begins a cohesive session on which, as Schlitten says, “the stars were aligned, the elements were right, and everyone was in the mood to play beautiful.” On this “Body and Soul”—“I always ask my favorite players to play it; it’s a sick thing I have,” says Schlitten—Gordon goes bel canto, subtly deploys timbre, his huge enveloping tone more Ben Websterish than Lestorian on an immortal reading. If “Body And Soul” implies a waltz feel, “Valse Robin”—Gordon’s dedication to his daughter—is explicitly so. “It floats along on a strong, buoyant pulse under an orb that is both Manakoorish Moon and Midnight Sun, and yet neither,” wrote Gitler in the notes. Dedicated to a British friend, the third original, “Mrs. Miniver,” is a medium swinger with another imprintable melody and meaty changes. It’s hard to imagine anyone extracting a more viola-like sound from a metal tube with holes than what Gordon achieves on Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song”—it’s pure tenor melody, like Ben Webster playing “Danny Boy.” The six-hour session ends with another brawny, architectonic Gordon solo on Clifford Brown’s “Blues Walk.” Flanagan lays out for about a minute at 1:55, and Gordon stretches the harmony, referencing “Chasin’ the Trane,” coming back inside after the pianist rejoins the fray.
“Europe has been very good because my lifestyle is much calmer and relaxed,” Gordon told Down Beat in 1972. “I can devote more time to music, and I think it is beginning to show.” In a sense, The Panther is the first extended document of Gordon’s mature style. Still functioning at a peak of physical prowess, he kept the fierce attack, deep swing, and populist imperatives of the Blue Note years, while internalizing the developments of the preceding decade.
“Dexter loved Trane,” Maxine Gordon. “He used to say, ‘Maybe if I didn’t give him that mouthpiece, I’d play as good as him.’ I said, ‘You do play as good as Trane.’ ‘No, I don’t.’”
“When Coltrane lived in Philly, I know he was listening to Dexter’s records, and Dexter later started playing some of Trane’s tunes,” says Jimmy Heath. “Dexter was over in Europe, and this revolution was happening here. He caught up with it later. There were a lot of people on his tail, so he had to move. Everybody has to. The free jazz movement influenced all of us to get a little freer in our playing, to try to get away from such a structured style. If you’re a musician who’s trying to get better all the time and improve your craft, you’re always looking for different substitutions, different ways to play on chords—or without chords. Different ways of expressing yourself. The search continues, and it continued with Dexter.”
“Dexter’s approach changed in the late Sixties and early Seventies,” says Eric Alexander, an astute Gordon student from a later generation. “When he resurfaced with Blue Note in the early Sixties, he was already playing with heavier articulation and swaggering swing, and more so by the late Sixties. Plus, he was listening to what was going on around him, and he started to extract bits and pieces of stuff he heard avant-garde players doing which start to show up in his playing. He didn’t stay in one place. He was constantly morphing into something else, even though he was Dex always.”
Piggybacking on the favorable reception for the Power albums, Gordon criss-crossed the States in the summer of 1970. He gigged at the Newport Jazz Festival, made a return visit to Baltimore, stopped in Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and took two bookings in Chicago. On the first Chicago visit, Windy City impresario Joe Segal hired Gordon to play afternoon and evening jam sessions at the North Park Hotel in the company of fellow expat Don Byas and old pal Gene Ammons. It was the first Gordon-Ammons recording since the Eckstine days, and Segal recorded the proceedings, placing a pair of Gordon-Ammons dialogues and one solo turn by each on The Chase.
Now we can hear the music in sequence, beginning with two quartets by Gordon and the afternoon rhythm section—idiosyncratic swing-to-bop pianist John Young (b.1921), bassist Cleveland Eaton of the Ramsey Lewis group, and drummer Steve McCall, who would become well-known later in the decade for his deft textural drumming with Air, an avant-garde collective trio. A staple of Gordon’s late Seventies repertoire, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” does not appear in his discography until an October 1969 TV broadcast with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Presumably omitted from the original LP for reasons of length, but included on the subsequent double-LP 25 Years of Prestige, “Wee Dot” is a J.J. Johnson blues first recorded for Savoy on December 19, 1947 by a septet under the nominal leadership of baritone saxophonist Leo Parker, joined by Johnson, Gordon, Leo Parker, Joe Newman, Hank Jones, Curly Russell, and Shadow Wilson. Gordon would wax a fire-and-brimstone version on a 1974 album for Steeplechase. Here he uncorks a solo as long and effervescent as his personality, quoting “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Here Comes the Bride” along the way. Ammons comes on board for a long ballad medley, sounding wistful on “Lover Man” and heart-on-the-sleeve on “My Funny Valentine,” while Gordon puts a light touch on “I Can’t Get Started” and “Misty.”
Manning the piano for the evening set is Chicago first-caller Jodie Christian, joined by local drum king Wilbur Campbell and bassist Rufus Reid, a member of Gordon’s working American quartet at the end of the decade. The surviving selections are a lively reprise of “The Chase,” Gordon’s notoriously popular 1947 tenor battle with Wardell Gray, and two versions of the popular Eckstine feature “Lonesome Lover Blues.” According to Segal, the intention was to record a new version of “Blowing the Blues Away,” with alto saxophonist/vocalist Vi Redd singing Eckstine’s lyric, but Redd—who had not heard the tune for several decades—opens the first version [Disc 7:8] singing what Joe Segal describes in the original notes as “a combination lyric best described as “Blowin’ the (Lonesome Lover) Blues Away.” In response to her repeated request to “blow Mr. Gene, blow Mr. Dexter, too,” Gordon and Ammons begin with several choruses of call-and-response. Gordon sets forth a string of citations (the original line from his own solo on the Eckstine recording, “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” “Candy”) before resolving into several choruses of blues invention. Ammons starts slow, making each note count, belting out his phrases like a Kansas City blues shouter, moving into the upper register as he builds the dramatic arc of his testimony, quoting “Frankie and Johnny” back at his old partner. John Young solos, Ammons ripostes, and the tenors banter to a conclusion over an extended, sloppy vamp. On the second version, which seems to conclude the concert, the saxophonists play the heads more cleanly and are more organized on the vamp, but stay closer to the vest on the solos.
“If you want to learn how to really phrase the saxophone and slow your actions down, listen to Dexter Gordon,” says tenorist David Murray in a comment relevant to Gordon’s playing on the Chicago concert. “This is a guy who had the ability to think ballad during an up tempo piece, and that’s why he sounds so smooth and so full. The way he played was effortless. He wasn’t racing anywhere. He could play fast if he wanted, but he didn’t really need to. I played opposite him and Johnny Griffin, and Johnny prefers to play fast. But when Johnny soloed opposite Dexter, Dexter always—unless he was completely torched—would come out and get house because he was grounded. In complete command.”
Gordon returned to New York for another Lester Young birthday visit to the studio in the company of a A-list rhythm section selected by Schlitten. On piano, out of Brooklyn, is Wynton Kelly (1931-1972), slightly past his prime but still swinging hard, and on bass is Florida native Sam Jones (1924-1981), whose down-the-center beat, huge tone, and melodic conception gave him steady work with Cannonball Adderley from 1959 to 1965 and with Oscar Peterson from 1966 to 1970. Detroiter Roy Brooks (b.1938), a Barry Harris disciple and Horace Silver alumnus with a bop-friendly disjunctive time feel, has the drum chair.
While Gordon selected repertoire for The Panther that framed him with contemporary beats and harmonies, he harks back to his early years on The Jumpin’ Blues, and plays with unwavering consistency and focus throughout—there’s little to choose between his solos on the alternate takes and the masters. Written for the session, “Evergreenish” is an attractive AABA form with a Dameronian connotation. Gordon’s solo swings with staunch precision, but Kelly is tentative in his solo, and the flow peters out. Brooks strokes an introductory train bell tone on his cymbal, cuing the tenorist into a streamlined “Rhythm-a-ning.” Gordon puts himself in the mood to swing with “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”; Kelly finds his vonce; Sam Jones plucks a walking chorus; and Gordon and Brooks embark on bracing 16-, 8- and 4-bar exchanges. “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)” was a Billboard #1 hit for Nat Cole in 1946-47, and was subsequently charted by Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Spivak, Dinah Shore, Sam Cooke, and the Cleftones. Had jazz been the zeitgeist in 1970, Gordon’s orotund, mellifluous version—hewing to Lester Young’s dictum that knowledge of lyrics is the basis of informed interpretation—might have been as popular. Gordon had interpolated the climactic coda of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” in both his recorded codas of “Body and Soul.” Here he caresses the lyric bop melody of the 1946 Sarah Vaughan Musicraft hit, gives way to a gentle Kelly solo, and returns for a rippling final chorus. He closes this paean to bebop with two homages to Charlie Parker. Springboarding off Bird’s rumba-like intro to his famous 1950 recording of “Star Eyes,” Gordon launches another graceful solo over a rolling, medium-up 4/4, breaking up his phrases and moving easily up and the down the horn. Recording with Jay McShann in 1941 for Decca, Bird introduced his concept to the world with pungent solos on “The Jumping Blues” and “Hootie Blues.” Gordon digs into the former, a prototype riff tune, and gets creative, weaving a quote of “Raincheck”—a 1941 Ben Webster feature by Billy Strayhorn—into the end of his solo.
Gordon won the 1971 Down Beat Critics Poll for top tenor saxophonist on the strength of his four LPs with Schlitten, and signed his third and final contract with Prestige on July 14, 1971, to do two more albums. Much of the jazz fraternity was plugging in—on the heels of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis was about to record Jack Johnson; Herbie Hancock had cut Mwandishi at the end of 1970; and Weather Report had recently recorded their first album—and it probably seemed like a good deal. But hardcore jazz was Gordon’s game, and he was not about to change.
Asked by a Down Beat interviewer in 1972 to choose between the terms “jazz” or “black music” as a self-description, Gordon responded: “I prefer to call it jazz, because to me it’s not a dirty word. It’s a beautiful word—I love it. To call it black music would be untrue, because many of the harmonic structures of bebop come from European music—from Stravinsky, from Handel, from Bartók. So to say ‘black music’? I don’t know what that is, unless it would be some African drums or something.”
Prestige got three LPs out of Gordon’s two sessions at the end of June 1972. First comes The Group, supervised by veteran A&R man Ozzie Cadena. Gordon shares the front line with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, then under contract to CTI, as he had done on his Blue Note debut, Doin’ Allright, and 1965’s Landslide. The rhythm section is pianist Cedar Walton, who had gigged with Gordon the previous November; bassist Buster Williams; and Gordon’s favorite drummer, Billy Higgins.
Though he’s a bit low in the mix, Higgins’s buoyant ride cymbal and subtle touch propels the soloists through the master take of “Milestones,” a John Lewis line for which Miles Davis took credit on his 1947 Savoy debut with Charlie Parker on tenor. Gordon again mirrors Bird’s asymmetrical phrasing and structural logic; Hubbard eschews pyrotechnics for a fat, burnished tone on a reflective solo; Walton is typically witty and incisive. On “Scared to Be Alone,” a 1968 song by Dory Previn [“When someone is around us/We don’t know what we’re seeing/We take a Polaroid picture/To find the human being”], Gordon again makes you feel the lyric message with his keening, commanding sound. Hubbard’s virtuosic solo includes clean upper-register triplet trills. Composed by Gordon for the occasion, “The Group” has an extended form and tasty bridge that propels declarative solos by Gordon and Hubbard—the latter struts into the upper register for much of his declamation, followed by a brief Walton summation. Composed by Henry Mancini for a Jack Lemmon–Lee Remick vehicle directed by Blake Edwards, “Days of Wine and Roses” is an extended ballad feature for the tenorist, who constructs his solo over Higgins’s inimitable medium bounce, before giving way for several well-conceived Walton choruses. All parties stretch out on Thelonious Monk’s “We See”—originally recorded by Monk on a May 1954 Prestige session with Frank Foster—to conclude a satisfying, no-nonsense convocation.
A week later, Gordon entered Van Gelder’s studio with a quintet of jazz virtuosos, and recorded seven tunes, several of blatantly commercial intent. His front–line partner is Thad Jones, one month Gordon’s junior, who worked in the Basie trumpet section from 1954 to 1963, and co-led the Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Orchestra from 1966 until 1978. Working with Gordon for the first time since the 1947 “Wee Dot” date is pianist Hank Jones (b.1918), who was then too busy in the New York commercial studios to get around much any more to serious jazz dates. After graduating from the Philadelphia Academy of Music the previous year, bassist Stanley Clarke had accumulated New York credits with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, and Stan Getz; with Chick Corea and Return to Forever, formed also in 1972, he’d bring the bass to the front of the band, inaugurating a successful career in electric jazz/fusion. Detroit-born drummer Louis Hayes (b.1938) hit the scene with Horace Silver in 1956, and spent much of the Sixties working with Cannonball Adderley and Oscar Peterson.
After Gordon intones the title, Clarke and Hayes lay down a relentless Afro-funk groove on “Ca’Purange,” recorded by Gene Ammons in 1962 and by Stevie Wonder in 1970. Gordon signifies on Ammons in his improvisation, substituting punchy phrases for his trademark long melodic lines. Thad Jones displays his singular harmonic concept and phrasing on an economical solo, and Hank Jones digs in as well. The leader returns to familiar ground on “Tangerine,” composed by Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger for the 1942 film The Fleet’s In, and taken here as a up tempo burner. Roberta Flack won the 1972 Grammy for Song of the Year and Album of the Year with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and Gordon sticks close to the melody, again channeling the manly, warm mid-register voice that his fans could never get enough of. Propelled by a churchy Stax-Volt backbeat, “What It Was,” penned by Gordon, features another Ammons-centric effort by the leader and a fleet turn by Thad Jones, who manages to interpolate a fragment of “Fascinating Rhythm.” Gordon finds some changes he can dig into on two takes of “Airegin,” a Sonny Rollins line that debuted on a 1954 Miles Davis quintet session for Prestige. Laconic on the master take, Thad Jones blows a mouthful on the alternate, which also features a solo chorus by Hayes. A classic Hank Jones intro brings on Gordon’s second original of the date, “Oh! Karen O,” a medium-slow blues on which the tenorist and Thad Jones testify at length. The pianist does the same on the attractive theme of Gordon’s sprightly “August Blues,” perhaps cooked up on the spot, and offers his meatiest solo of the day, following some harmonic twists and turns from his little brother and yet another example of Gordon’s consistent ability to find new things to say on the most elemental forms.
In the ensuing week, Gordon participated in two recorded all-star jam sessions for the first Newport Jazz Festival in New York at Radio City Music Hall, before returning to Europe. Though these would be his last New York performances until 1976, American enthusiasts enjoyed numerous Gordon recordings with the Danish Steeplechase label, which signed him in the latter part of 1972. Over the next four years, he did several tours on a circuit that took him from Western Canada to his native Los Angeles. On one such L.A. engagement in July 1973, documented on the Up Front label, Gordon revisited the music he’d written for The Connection 13 years before with old friend Hampton Hawes on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and ur–bop drummer and fellow expat Kenny Clarke.
A July 7th radio broadcast with that quartet at the Montreux Jazz Festival, issued contemporaneously on Prestige as Blues a la Suisse, wraps up this package. It may be the most swinging record of 1973. After perfunctorily outlining the theme on Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” Gordon bridges into a long, lick-filled solo, playing all over the horn with impeccable timing and a thick, ravishing tone. Hawes is guitaristic and percussive on the Rhodes, and Clarke precisely syncopates his off-beat accents on the snare drum. The title track is another name for John Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues,” which Sjøgren cites Gordon playing on two gigs the previous November. A slick klook-a-mop figure on the hi-hat and a tasty Hawes intro escort Gordon into the theme, and without further ado, boosted by Clarke’s crisp, inventive timekeeping, he essays a joyous declamation. Hawes again morphs the Rhodes into tuned drums, and Clarke says a mouthful with a minimum of strokes. There follows a stunningly beautiful, almost plainsong reading of Irene Kitchings’s “Some Other Spring,” introduced by Billie Holiday in 1939, and an extended romp at an unwavering boptrot tempo through Sammy Fain’s Oscar-winning “Secret Love,” written for the 1953 film Calamity Jane and sung by Doris Day. The quartet ends their hour with “Tivoli,” a gentle minor waltz by Gordon with nice melodic motion within the changes. Gordon is poetic, expressive and transparent; if this concert were the only recording of his oeuvre, he would rank as one of the great voices on any instrument.
Fittingly, the 88th and final track is a rousing Dexter Gordon–Gene Ammons tenor battle, augmented by Nat and Cannonball Adderley, on a spontaneous Ammons riff titled “’Treux Bleu,” in honor of the venue. Gordon inserts “3 O’Clock in the Morning,” “Candy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Stranger in Paradise,” “Chicago,” “Salt Peanuts,” and other good old good ones; Nat Adderley blows a few strong choruses before losing his lip; Ammons rip-roars through an ascendant oration with many “Wow!” moments; and Cannonball explores the lower depths of the alto with complete control, meeting the tenors on their own terms and adding something else.
Three years later, Gordon would sign with Columbia and relocate to the Apple to embark on his efflorescent final act. Until his death in 1990, he gigged around the world on a regular basis with several top-shelf American quartets, made records with good budgets and adequate rehearsal time, and brilliantly portrayed the shambling, dissipated jazzman Dale Turner in Bertrand Tavernier’s film ́Round Midnight. “I saw Dexter in the early days of the filming and asked how he was feeling,” says producer Todd Barkan, who booked Gordon into San Francisco’s Keystone Korner on a regular basis during his pre-“homecoming” years. “He said, ‘I have been preparing for this movie all my life.’ He considered it to be his life story.”
Long before he became a movie star, Gordon brought to bandstands on a nightly basis the emotional transparency that made him so effective in the film. His music was an ongoing memoir. The Fantasy holdings give us a clear picture of how consistently he was able to access his creative muse on impromptu jam sessions, concert performances, and studio dates executed with various degrees of rehearsal. Loyal to old-school values, he continued to grow, navigating the here-and-now on his own terms.
“Nobody was more hip than Dexter, or less doctrinaire or more liberal,” says Barkan. “I think he fit perfectly into the zeitgeist of the Sixties. His warmth and graciousness made him stand out in the musical community—an especially likable and well-liked guy. He was very urbane and appreciated the finer things in life, but he had a common touch with people—he got along with a whole spectrum.”
“Dexter could charm anybody,” Jimmy Heath affirms. “His personality was very open. The ladies loved him, but everyone liked him a lot. They liked his playing, they liked the way he looked, the image he had.”
And people still like Dexter Gordon. Consider this appreciation from Joshua Redman, who won the 1991 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition with a version of “Second Balcony Jump”:
“The thing about Dexter that hits me more than anything else is the depth and hugeness and commanding power of his sound. Dexter makes you realize that the sound is everything. Because if you have the sound, all the ideas and vocabulary flow through it. Dexter showed me that it’s clearly not about which notes you play or how many, and it’s not about your technical prowess. It’s not necessarily about harmonic sophistication, even though he was very sophisticated harmonically. It’s about your voice. He was such a master of strong, declarative playing. And so relaxed, so behind the beat. You can hear it in his phrasing. Just taking his time. Allowing that big voice to speak at its own pace. There’s something very joyful about his personality, a subtle sense of humor that makes you smile. Those corners of your mouth start to go up as the solo progresses.
“For me as a saxophonist, trying to learn the language of jazz, and specifically the language of bebop, there was no better tenor player than Dexter Gordon to learn that from. Dexter’s improvisations lay out the language of bebop in very clear, strong, simple terms. He trimmed all the fat off of it. There’s no ornament. It’s pure substance. Pure content. It’s raw material spoken through this strong, elegant, powerful, and gentle voice.”
Even as life chipped away at Dexter Gordon’s constitution, that voice remained constant. However much he abused his body, he always sounded comfortable in his own skin. “Dexter liked the jazz world,” says Maxine Gordon. “He loved jazz musicians. He wanted to be remembered as the bebop tenor saxophonist.” When you’re done listening to this boxed set from beginning to end, you’ll agree that he was.