Dexter Gordon: Dexter Gordon: The Complete Prestige Recordings

John Kelman By

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Dexter Gordon
The Complete Prestige Recordings
Prestige (11PRCD-4442-2)

"Even his walk is bebop" ~Bernard Tavernier, director of Round Midnight

"The 6 foot 5 gentle giant of a man was also the personification of urbane wit and sophistication." ~Bruce Lundvall

When one thinks of the progenitors of bebop, one typically thinks of artists including alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, and drummer Max Roach. Notably absent is a tenor player in that list, and there is no doubt that the man who defined bebop on the bigger horn was one Dexter Keith Gordon, who, emerging in the '40s from under the shadow of Lester Young, Jimmy Dorsey, Coleman Hawkins and the lesser-known Dick Wilson, went on to not only become the premier representative of the tenor in bebop, but demonstrated a remarkable penchant to continue evolving within the genre. He may have initially influenced younger players including Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but when they became innovators in their own right Dexter took back as much as he gave, his style growing constantly until his death in '90 at the all-too-young age of 67.

But Gordon left a huge recorded legacy, including some classic sides for Blue Note, Columbia, Steeplechase and Prestige. With the release of The Complete Prestige Recordings , a whopping 11-disc set which include sessions pre-and-post-dating his time with Blue Note in the '60s, one can hear the growth in Gordon's style even as his consistency and distinctive voice remain intact. With 88 tracks, including 16 previously unissued takes, this is a treasure trove of Gordon and, for that matter, bebop at the highest level.

Beginning with a tenor duel with Wardell Gray from Wardell Gray Memorial, Vol. 2 , a '50 session that finds Gordon in the fine company of trumpeter Clark Terry and alto saxophonist Sonny Criss, "Move" demonstrates that by the age of 27 Gordon had already established what would be the defining characteristics of his style: a relaxed, behind-the-beat approach that made the body move unconsciously; a dry wit that was manifested by liberal quoting, in his solos, of material from popular songs and jazz standards of the day; a warm and robust tone that was bold and deep at the bottom and rich and full at the top; and an uncanny ability to navigate the complex chord changes of bebop and run a melody through them like a thread through a needle.

Like many of his peers, Gordon struggled with drug abuse and, indeed, spent much of the '50s incarcerated. So when he re-emerged (one of many times he would do so) on parole in '60, he was quickly brought back to the studio for the album The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon , an album that featured a number of West Coast player (where Gordon was residing) including drummer Larance Marable, who continues to work to this day as a member of bassist Charlie Haden's Noir-ish Quartet West. But the order of the day for this session was bebop, and in the context of a sextet, an unusually large ensemble for Gordon, he proved that not only was he back, but that the time spent in prison had not gone to waste. Clean and confident, the six tracks from this album have Gordon in fine form, sharing the solo space equally with the rest of the ensemble that also includes trumpeter Martin Banks, trombonist Richard Boone, pianist Dolo Coker and bassist Charlie Green. On the mid-tempo swinger "Lovely Lisa" his phrasing is so laid back that one almost has to catch one's balance. But by being so egalitarian, Gordon's solos are shorter than usual, although they still demonstrate the distinctive characteristics that make The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon a true event.

Such an event, in fact, that shortly after the album was released Gordon was signed to Blue Note, where he recorded a number of records between '61 and '65 including Dexter Calling and Go , albums that placed him squarely and rightly in the public eye again. In late '62 Gordon turned a gig at London's Ronnie Scott's into a two year European stay that resulted in additional Blue Note recordings, including the classic Our Man in Paris. Ultimately relocating to Copenhagen, where he would live until '76, Gordon worked regularly around Scandinavia and continental Europe.

In '65 he joined tenor player Booker Ervin for two extended jam sessions that would become Setting the Pace under Ervin's name, featuring pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Alan Dawson. On the two 20-minute Gordon compositions that make up the album Gordon demonstrates another facility—the ability to create extended solos that are never repetitive, never become tired; as long as Gordon's solos are he never overstays his welcome. Brimming with ideas and filled with the dry wit that is as much a part of his personality as it is his playing, the fast-swinging title track and equally up-tempo "Dexter's Deck" also show what a terrific rhythm section Byard, Workman and Dawson are --- again, never sounding tired, generating excitement from the background that drives both Gordon and Ervin to dizzying heights, a true classic of the two tenor tradition.

While Gordon recorded with Blue Note through most of the '60s, he always remained in touch with Prestige producer Don Schlitten and, in February '69 Gordon signed a contract for two records, releasing The Tower of Power! and More Power! , yet another of Gordon's re-emergences that generated considerable excitement with his American fans, many of whom had lost track of Gordon while he was in Europe, where in the years following his Blue Note recordings he recorded for European labels including Steeplechase and Black Lion. Both sessions feature the inestimable rhythm section of pianist Barry Harris, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, along with guest James Moody, keeping the two tenor tradition alive on six of the 17 tracks the group recorded in a marathon session over two days in April '69. For the studio sessions Schlitten allowed the group remarkable freedom to stretch out on pieces including Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird," Jobim's "Meditation" and a host of Gordon originals including the medium tempo swinger "Fried Bananas," which would become a staple in Gordon's repertoire for years to come.

Sessions done, before returning to Europe Gordon arranged for a number of gigs including a May 4th, '69 date for the Left Bank Jazz Society at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore, with a pick-up group that included ex-Art Blakey pianist Bobby Timmons, bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Percy Bryce. The seven tracks recorded from the date were ultimately released on two albums— L.T.D./Live at the Left Bank , "L.T.D." standing, of course, for "Long Tall Dexter," and XXL/Live at the Left Bank. The tracks, which include a poignant version of Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," where Gordon literally wrings the emotion out of his horn, and an extended medium-tempo take on Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," demonstrate that regardless of the context, Gordon's conception remains clear and distinct. And on the 24-minute take on Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning," Gordon maintains an energy throughout his seven-minute solo that is simply remarkable.

It is interesting to note that until his return to the United States in the mid-'70s, Gordon never actually had a consistent band for any length of time. Yet he generally managed to choose his players wisely, performers who clearly understood the tradition from whence he came while, at the same time, injecting the modernity of the time in their playing.

Following his return to Copenhagen, Gordon's contract with Prestige was renewed and sessions were set up for two more records. But in the interim Gordon joined pianist Junior Mance and his band at Montreux; the result being Dexter Gordon with Junior Mance at Montreux. Their take on Gordon's "Fried Bananas" is somehow cleaner, more refined than the version Gordon recorded on More Power! , and this date gives Gordon the chance to try out a new blues composition that would become the title track for the first of his next two albums with Schlitten, The Panther!.

Featuring the refined and elegant playing of pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Larry Ridley and drummer Alan Dawson, everything about The Panther! seems right. Dawson and Ridley bring just the right blend of tenderness and groove to the implied waltz feel of "Body and Soul," while Gordon's wide vibrato, controlled and used to subtle effect, enhances his lyrical reading of his own "Valse Robin." Gordon can be playful, as he is on the medium tempo original, Mrs. Miniver," or fiery and clever on Clifford Brown's up-tempo "Blues Walk."

While Gordon was touring the States in '70, Chicago impresario Joe Segal brought him together with tenor player Gene Ammons for the first time in over 25 years for a date at The North Park Hotel. The resulting recording, The Chase! features one tune each featuring Gordon and Ammons alone, and then brings them together for the traditional two tenor workout. Interestingly, the afternoon performance featured a different rhythm section than the evening show, with Rufus Reid on bass in the evening, a player who would ultimately be a member of Gordon's working band in the late '70s. The evening show also featured, uncharacteristically for Gordon, a vocalist. Vi Redd brings some diversity to the set, with a raspy delivery and clear gospel roots.

Gordon wound up this visit to the States with another studio session for Schlitten, this time in the company of pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Roy Brooks for The Jumpin' Blues. By this time Gordon had begun to incorporate some of the harmonic inventions of the avante garde movement into his playing, although his playing could never be considered on the edge. But by this time he was able to take things just the slightest bit out, as he does on the quartet's rousing take on "Rhythm-a-ning," by this time another staple in Gordon's repertoire. Kelly is as on the money as usual, but the star of the rhythm section has to be Jones, whose rock solid support and unerring sense of placement gives the whole session a vivid feel.

Gordon came back to the US in June of '72, ostensibly for two more albums which, on the strength of the sessions, ultimately turned into three releases: Tangerine , Generation and Ca'Purange. On all of Generation and one track of Tangerine the line-up was a supergroup consisting of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Buster Williams and Billy Higgins, whose joyous drumming elevates these sessions to amongst the best of the box. There's a stronger sense of interplay as Higgins tunes into Gordon, Hubbard and Walton, providing accents and shots that always make sense, are never superfluous. Hubbard, a player with a broad reach but a hard bopper at heart, feels right at home here, delivering a warm but boisterous flugelhorn solo on Monk's "We See."

For the second session, that resulted in the bulk of Tangerine and all of Ca'Purange , Gordon and the group, consisting of trumpeter Thad Jones, pianist Hank Jones, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Louis Hayes, for the first time show some influence of Afro-funk on the title track of Ca'Purange , and contemporary popular music on their reading of the Roberta Flack hit, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." While these more overtly contemporary settings feel a little out of place for Gordon, his own style remains intact, with a solo that drips emotion on the Flack tune, also featuring a moving flugelhorn solo from Jones.

Up to this time Gordon had avoided the trappings of the electric movement that were occurring all around him. By '73, when the last two sessions on the box were recorded, Miles had gone completely electric, as had artists including John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. So it is no surprise that electric bass and electric piano should begin to invade Gordon's approach to bebop that may have kept evolving over the years, but remained pure in terms of texture.

Recorded July 7, '73 with a band that included pianist Hampton Hawes, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Kenny Clarke, the band swings well enough, especially on an extended take of Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy," and the interplay is certainly strong between the players, but somehow the electric piano feels a little out of place. Not that there's anything wrong with electric instruments, but in context of Gordon's work it just feels somehow wrong. Hawes is a fine pianist with a solid grounding in bop, but the more airy texture of the piano removes some of the overall weight of the group sound.

The last track on the disk is taken from another concert the same day by Gene Ammons that featured an all-star line-up of the same group that recorded Dexter's set, which was ultimately released as Blues à la Suisse , but with the addition of Cannonball Adderley on alto, brother Nat on cornet and conga player Kenneth Nash. The 17-minute "'Treux Bleu" gives everyone a chance to strut, but suffers from the same problem as the Blues à la Suisse set.

But despite moments of weakness on the final disc, The Complete Prestige Recordings is a prime selection of material from the tenor player who did, indeed, define the tenor saxophone for the bebop movement. His Blue Note recordings may be the ones that people think of when they think of Gordon, but the truth is that he recorded more equally strong dates for Prestige and Don Schlitten. Following these fine dates Gordon would return to Copenhagen one more time, only to come back to the United States in '76 and relocate there for the balance of his life, recording a number of solid albums for Columbia and finally having something that he never had for the majority of his career—a regular working band. But The Complete Prestige Recordings highlights a time in his life when he was moving back and forth from Europe to the United States, taking in the influences of a variety of locales, and bringing them out in his music in a way that was consistent yet always evolving. Gordon's wife once said that "He wanted to be remembered as the bebop tenor saxophonist," and on the strength of this box his position is affirmed.

Collective Personnel: Dexter Gordon (tenor saxophone), Wardell Gray (tenor saxophone), Clark Terry (trumpet), Sonny Criss (alto saxophone), Jimmy Bunn (piano), Billy Hadnott (bass), Chuck Thompson (drums), Martin Banks (trumpet), Richard Boone (trombone), Dolo Coker (piano), Charles Green (bass), Larance Marable (drums), Booker Ervin (tenor saxophone), Jaki Byard (piano), Reggie Workman (bass), Alan Dawson (drums), James Moody (tenor saxophone), Barry Harris (piano), Buster Williams (bass), Albert "Tootie" Heath (drums), Bobby Timmons (piano), Victor Gaskin (bass), Percy Brice (drums), Junior Mance (piano), Martin Rivera (bass), Oliver Jackson (drums), Tommy Flanagan (piano),, Larry Ridley (bass), Gene Ammons (tenor saxophone), John Young (piano), Cleveland Eaton (bass), Steve McCall (drums), Jodie Christian (piano), Rufus Reid (bass), Wilbur Campbell (drums), Vi Redd (vocal), Wynton Kelly (piano), Sam Jones (bass), Roy Brooks (drums), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet, flugelhorn), Cedar Walton (piano), Billy Higgins (drums), Thad Jones (trumpet, flugelhorn), Hank Jones (piano), Stanley Clarke (bass), Louis Hayes (drums), Hampton Hawes (piano, electric piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Kenny Clarke (drums), Cannonball Adderley (alto saxophone), Nat Adderley (cornet), Kenneth Nash (congas)

Track Listing:

Disc One: Move; Home Run; Dolo; Lovely Lisa; Affair in Havana; Jodi; Field Day; Setting the Pace

Disc Two: Dexter's Deck; Montmarte; Lady Bird; Sticky Wicket; Montmarte (alt tk); Lady Bird (alt tk)

Disc Three: Sticky Wicket (alt tk); Those Were the Days; Stanley the Steamer; The Rainbow People; Boston Bernie; Meditation (Meditacao); Fried Bananas; Dinner for One Please, James; Stanley the Steamer (alt tk); The Rainbow People (alt tk)

Disc Four: Boston Bernie (alt tk); Fried Bananas (alt tk); Broadway; Boston Bernie; In a Sentimental Mood; Blues Up and Down
Disc Five: Rhythm-a-ning; Misty; Love for Sale; Fried Bananas; Sophisticated Lady

Disc Six: Rhythm-a-ning; Body and Soul; Blue Monk; The Panther; The Panther; Body and Soul; Valse Robin; Mrs. Miniver; The Christmas Song

Disc Seven: Blues Walk; Valse Robin (alt tk); Mrs. Miniver (alt tk); Blues Walk (alt tk); Polka Dots and Moonbeams; Wee Dot; The Happy Blues; Lonesome Lover Blues (alt tk)

Disc Eight: Medley—Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)/I Can't Get Started/My Funny Valentine/Misty; The Chase; Lonesome Lover Blues; Evergreenish; Rhythm-a-ning; For Sentimental Reasons (I Love You); If You Could See Me Now; Star Eyes; The Jumpin' Blues

Disc Nine: Evergreenish (alt tk); Rhythm-a-ning (alt tk); For Sentimental Reasons (I Love You) (alt tk); Star Eyes (alt tk); The Jumpin' Blues (alt tk); Milestones; Scared to Be Alone; The Group; Days of Wine and Roses; We See

Disc Ten: Milestones (alt tk); Scared to Be Alone (alt tk); The Group (alt tk); Ca'Purange (Jungle Soul); Tangerine; The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face; What It Was; Airegin; Oh! Karen O; Airegin (alt tk)

Disc Eleven: August Blues; Gingerbread Boy; Blues a la Suisse; Some Other Spring; Secret Love; Tivoli; 'Treux Bleu

Track Listing:


Title: Dexter Gordon: The Complete Prestige Recordings | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Prestige Records


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