Dexter Gordon: His career on the record Part 2

This is Part 2 of 2 Parts. Read Part 1 Here

Our Man In Paris was to have included Kenny Drew and other musicians playing some original Gordon compositions. But when Bud Powell replaced Drew at the piano, the decision was made to record a series of standards. With original bebop drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke on drums and Frenchman Pierre Michelot on bass, Our Man in Paris becomes an essential recording in a career of essential recordings. From the opening “Scrapple from the Apple,” the finest recording of this classic since Bird passed away, it becomes apparent that this session will be one for the ages.

Bud Powell, while far from the sound and fury of his best years, plays very lucidly and his solos, while brief, have a real sense of logic about them that belies the idea that he was completely spent by this time. Indeed, a number of sessions recorded by Powell in Europe around this time confirm that, when surrounded by stimulating musicians or environment, Powell was still capable of performing very well. Other standout performances here include Gordon’s very vital reading of “Willow Weep for Me” and a fairly incendiary version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.”

Dexter Gordon performs ‘Body and Soul’ in Belgium, 1964

The following year saw the recording and release of One Flight Up. This time Gordon is in the company of trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Kenny Drew, drummer Art Taylor, and Danish bassist Neils-Henning Orsted Pedersen, a new find at the time. The album was to have had four tracks, but Wolff determined that the recorded performances of the Gordon original “King Neptune” were not up to par, so it was not included. No matter—the eighteen-plus minute version of Byrd’s composition “Tanya” took up a whole side and lengthy blowing sessions on Drew’s “Coppin’ The Haven” and the standard “Darn That Dream” offered enough to fill out an album. The Rudy Van Gelder Edition of this recording restores the better take of“Neptune’s Dream.”

What might have been a lackluster blowing session for lesser artists is a real winner for Gordon. His playing has a new energy and edge here, especially on “Tanya,” a piece that would become a mainstay of Gordon’s live repertoire for some time to come. When Pedersen kicks into a walking rhythm on the song’s bridge with Taylor offering blasts of counter-rhythm, it feels about as good as jazz gets. Byrd is also playing well on this session, and he certainly is another artist whose Blue Note work is considered to be among his very best.

1965’s Getting’ Around is considered to be something of a second-tier recording among Gordon’s Blue Note work, but considering the level set by Gordon on these earlier recordings, that hardly makes it bad. The rhythm section is from Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder recording (Barry Harris, Billy Higgins, Bob Cranshaw) along with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. The results are smooth and sophisticated—listen to Gordon’s work on “Shiny Stockings.”

Dexter Gordon: The Complete Prestige Recordings contains all eleven albums of material Gordon recorded for the label, including Tower of Power, More Power, LTD, XXL, The Panther, and Tangerine.

During the entire time he recorded for Blue Note, Gordon stayed in touch with Prestige Records producer Don Schlitten. In 1969 he signed a two-record deal with Prestige and recorded sessions for The Tower of Power and More Power. Prior to signing with Prestige, Gordon had recorded some sessions for European labels such as Steeplechase and Black Lion. Tower of Power and More Power feature Barry Harris, Buster Williams, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and on several tracks, guest tenor player James Moody. The playing here is congenial, relaxed, with no attempts being made to break new ground. No, this is the sound of a master musician doing the very thing that he is famous for, the thing that he does.

The 70s Prestige albums have never carried the cachet of the Blue Note sides, but one reason for that may be that several of the Prestige albums became unavailable for a time, perhaps leading some to surmise that the sessions were less than essential. In 2005 Prestige remedied this situation by releasing the mammoth 11-CD box set Dexter Gordon: The Complete Prestige Recordings. This set documents all of Dex’s work for Prestige from 1969 through 1973, with some earlier work for the label (a recording with Wardell Gray, the 1960 album The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon and two performances from Booker Ervin’s Setting the Pace featuring pianist Jaki Byard and bassist Reggie Workman) thrown in for completeness. Hearing Dexter tear into “Montmartre” and “Lady Bird,” along with equally interesting alternate takes of each makes it immediately clear that this is a body of work that is in no way inferior within the artist’s discography.

Before returning to Europe, Gordon played live gigs at Baltimore’s LeftBank Jazz Society on May 4, 1969. These were recorded and subsequently released as the albums L.T.D. Live at the Left Bank and XXL Live at the Left Bank. Gordon, along with rhythm section Bobby Timmons, Victor Gaskin, and Percy Brice, burns through a series of tunes, including Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” on which he plays a seven-minute solo that remains vital, energetic, and bristling with inventiveness throughout. There’s a beautiful reading of “Misty” on which Gordon doesn’t really deviate from the melody all that much but on which he nonetheless puts his distinctive stamp. A lengthy “Love for Sale” again hints at the bossa rhythms of the version on Go!, but which gets a bit more down-home feel from Timmons. Dexter Gordon with Junior Mance Live at Montreux is represented by standouts such as a lively version of “Fried Bananas” and a sumptuous reading of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”

On1970’s The Panther, Gordon is joined by pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Larry Ridley, and drummer Alan Dawson. Opening with an authoritative version of Clifford Brown’s “Blues Walk,” the group immediately establishes itself as top-notch. This is an album that can truly be set right beside Gordon’s best Blue Note recordings. Gordon was paired with Albert Ammons for a retake on “The Chase”, and Gordon’s last real two-tenor collaboration. During the same stateside visit, Gordon also recorded the sessions for The Jumpin’ Blues, an album that featured ever-tasteful pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Roy Brooks. Gordon lays down a definitive “Rhythm-A-Ning,” which he was playing often. There’s also a wonderful performance of “Star Eyes” utilizing the Parker original’s rumba opening. When Gordon soars as the rhythm section breaks into a straight-ahead swing, it feels like freedom itself.

In1972, Gordon returned to the States to record sessions for two additional Prestige albums. However, the sessions went so well that almost all of the material was released over the course of three albums: Tangerine, Generation, and Ca’Purange. Generation (and one single track on Tangerine) features Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Buster Williams, and Billy Higgins. This is a distinctive group, and again the results of this recording largely rival anything from the Blue Note Years. Most of Tangerine and all of Ca’Purange feature something of an Afro-funk soul feel. These sessions feature Thad Jones on trumpet and flugelhorn, Hank Jones at the piano, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums. Without the use of electronics, these performances brought Gordon’s hearty post-bop tenor sound firmly into the modern jazz mainstream without sacrificing or dumbing down his artistry at all. Gordon handles “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” as though it were a standard from the Great American Songbook, and he tears up Sonny Rollins’“Airegin” like no one this side of Sonny could. Again, Gordon is at the top of his form, and the sheer volume of his stellar recorded work comes prominently into focus.

The last disc in the Prestige set includes Dexter’s 1973 live at Montreux album Blues a la Suisse. Featured are pianist Hampton Hawes, who works both acoustic and electric piano, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Kenny Clarke. Some may bristle at hearing Dexter with electric piano, but it’s a needless worry: Gordon’s musical spirit is too strong to be waylaid by something as innocuous as an electric keyboard, particularly when it’s played as funkily and tastily as Hawes does here. For the final track, the group is joined by guests Gene Ammons, Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley, and Kenneth Nash for “Treux Blue.” Overall, the majority of the music contained on the Complete Prestige Recordings is very high quality, and will certainly not disappoint Dexter fans in any way.

Dexter Gordon performs “Tanya”

At the end of 1976, Gordon returned from some 14 years in Europe to play some dates at the Village Vanguard. Unexpectedly, Gordon was the jazz world’s darling, with critics lauding his mature playing and a new generation of listeners coming to hear him. Gordon returned to the states and enjoyed a renewed career until his death in 1990. Less than a year after his triumphant return, Gordon recorded Sophisticated Giant for Columbia. In 1978, Gordon went back into the studio with a band comprised of pianist George Cables, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Eddie Gladden and emerged with the classic album Manhattan Symphonie, which remains a highlight of his discography.

Manhattan Symphonie is another perfect Dexter Gordon album, and the fact that it was on a major American music label didn’t change Dex’s approach one bit. He and the band are playing absolutely top-notch bebop-influenced jazz, and it’s hard to believe this kind of thing was getting recorded and released at the time. The group revisits the signature tune “Tanya,” with Cables offering an incredibly church-tinged flourish to the piano vamp, and Dexter sounding like his tone has been mellowed in an oak barrel for a couple of decades. Comparing the Gordon of Manhattan Symphonie with Daddy Plays the Horn, or even his very earliest Blue Notes, one hears what was missing from Dexter’s sound then—experience and the distillation of one’s voice down to its absolute essentials, devoid of extraneous trappings.

Dexter went on to greater fame in the States in the mid-1980s when he contributed to the soundtrack of the film Round Midnight, as well as taking a starring role in the film. A couple of recordings of soundtrack music from the film were released, and Gordon also did some work with Herbie Hancock, another contributor to Round Midnight’s soundtrack.

Gordon passed away April 26, 1990, leaving behind a recorded legacy rivaled by few modern jazz musicians. Gordon’s work, at all stages of his career, is something to be savored like the finest of spirits. Rest assured that anytime you pull out a Dexter Gordon recording, you will be hearing a musician of the highest order whose recorded output is remarkably consistent and appealing.

This is Part 2 of 2 Parts. Read Part 1 Here

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