Dexter Gordon

I’ve made some dismissive comments about tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon in the past, hasty hot air that told more about my own limitations than anything having to do with his legendary status. Go! was one of the first RVG remasters I ever owned (1999 - tempus fugit), and I knew much about him prior to that, but further attempts to explore his music lead to a non-response on my part - maybe it wasn’t as adventurous as some of the other things I dug at the time. Recently, I gained a new appreciation for his playing; sometimes your listening comes full circle. In any case, Long Tall Dexter’s resume speaks for itself, so let me get to praising a few selections. (Apologies for not including Our Man in Paris and One Flight Up, a couple of others that I used to own and haven’t yet revisited.)

Doin’ Allright
May 1961 / Blue Note RVG

The title refers not just to a Gershwin tune herein but also to the positive vibe of Gordon being back in effect after some off years. I love the way “I Was Doing All Right” starts the album on such a relaxed note, Gordon’s tenor sax and Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet smoothly laying the melody over a steady snap from Horace Parlan (piano), George Tucker (bass), and Al Harewood (drums). This nine-minute track gives the soloists plenty of time to extemporize over that easy feel, and Dexter and Freddie hold a slick conversation at the end. This is followed by the ballad “You’ve Changed” that reaches the realm of the profound, at least during Dexter’s statement. He virtually holds the song in his hand, and for the few minutes of his solo, he’s the only saxophonist on earth. Next up are a couple of originals, “For Regulars Only” and “Society Red”, both with fanfare-like themes that aren’t quite to my taste (shades of the bygone swing era), but the improvisations are another matter. On “Regulars Only”, Gordon twists the implications of the melody this way and that, occasionally lengthening notes to great effect, and whatever my opinion of the melody, the chord progression does give the players some fertile terrain in which to work. “Society Red” is a simpler, bluesier piece, drawing patient ideas from the leader and good outings from the others, particularly Hubbard.

The finale “It’s You or No One”, a Styne-Cahn standard, starts with a rigid vamp and turns into a fully swinging jam. Dexter chips at the groove and caroms through the chord changes, pausing once for a dramatic shaken note (a standby in his bag o’ tricks). Hubbard, Parlan, and Harewood follow. The RVG remaster includes a couple of bonus tracks, one being a passable alternate of “For Regulars Only”. The other is “I Want More”, a Gordon original that he would redo with a different team in his next session. This version sounds more outgoing to me, and I’m glad it wasn’t erased as a sub-par reject (which it certainly isn’t). In the end, Doin’ Allright does quite all right in propping up Gordon’s reputation and delivering solid kicks for the hardbop crowd.

Dexter Calling
May 1961 / Blue Note RVG

Recorded three days after Doin’ Allright, this quartet album with Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones might promise on paper to really let Dexter Gordon loose - lots of soloing space, certified aces in the bass and drum chairs, etc. Yet not everything clicks into place. At first, I thought this wasn’t one of Philly Joe’s sharpest efforts, but in actuality, he drums as he always does, it just that his accents don’t always fit Gordon’s phrasing. Thus it sometimes sounds like one isn’t in sync with the other, though they do mesh satisfactorily at certain points. Anyway, the album gets off to a larky start with “Soul Sister”, a potentially soulful tune that loses momentum in its alternation of a waltz beat and a 12/8 boogie. I like rhythmic twists as much as the next person - probably a lot more than the next person - but the application here is unnecessary and somewhat clumsy. The record really begins to cook on the second track, Drew’s “Modal Mood”, which trucks along without complication. Dexter shapes his solo with more traditional cycles of tension and release than the motivic exploration you hear from Miles or Coltrane in their modal works. Not a complaint, just an observation.

Dexter’s original “I Want More” was given a prior workout at the Doin’ Allright session. Though the version here is a decent one, I think that earlier take flows better. The tune itself is nothing great but likeable enough. In “The End of a Love Affair”, probably the most fulfilling cut on the album, Dexter’s improvisation takes on a playful and sinuous character. (Don’t be thrown by the title; the end of this affair sounds like a rather joyous occasion.) “Clear the Dex” maintains some of that upbeat forward motion but doesn’t rise into anything special, and I could do without Dexter’s less-than-suave quote of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. “Ernie’s Tune” is a poignant ballad, well done, followed by “Smile”, a short exploration of the old Chaplin tune that sounds as happy as it should. The neo-bop bonus track “Landslide” closes the disc and easily beats a couple of the other numbers.

Despite some outstanding tracks (“Modal Mood”, “Love Affair”), Dexter Calling doesn’t totally coalesce, but it is worth hearing after some of his other recordings.

Aug. 1962 / Blue Note RVG

What makes Go! such a standout? For me, it’s the way Dexter sounds fully in command and just goes, supported by a compatible trio of pianist Sonny Clark, bassist Butch Warren, and drummer Billy Higgins. The material is appealing as well; there’s “Cheesecake”, a catchy minor-key theme along the lines of “Canteloupe Island” and “Song for My Father” (to keep the comparisons in the Blue Note catalog) and a terrific version of “Love For Sale” where Dexter sings forth over Higgins’ snappy grooves. The ballads “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” and “Where Are You” are delivered with urbane emotion, and the two ‘old school’ tunes “Second Balcony Jump” and “Three o’clock in the Morning” are ripe with humor and cleverness. Gordon plays voluminously throughout, often returning after the piano solos to state further ideas that must have occurred to him in the interim. Part of his style - and something that makes him sound less aggressive than other tenors - is the way he often plays a tad behind the beat, though his power adds propulsion after the fact. He’s keen on direct melodies and resolutions, along with dramatic contrasts - partway into his “Three o’clock” solo, he sticks with a low note for a couple of bars, making it sound as if he’d temporarily run dry, but this actually sets up a shift to the higher register of his horn, after which he dives into a series of engaging phrases.

While other albums on this page are not short of inspiration, this one is strongly integrated from the first line to the last, and that includes the contributions of the whole quartet. It’s equally suited to casual listening or close inspection, and though it breaks no barriers, it accomplishes what it intends in an infectious way.

A Swingin’ Affair
Aug. 1962 / Blue Note RVG

Consider this the sibling of Go!, recorded a couple of days afterward with the same personnel, and it’s just as enjoyable an album in most respects. “Soy Califa” gets things started in a calypso zone; while the theme is no great shakes, the meat of the track has a lot of value. Then comes “Don’t Explain”, a rich performance of emotional intensity. Call it romance or beauty or whatever, all I know is that a ballad played as elegantly as this can be a transcendent thing. (Odd note: just by chance, I’ve heard this track more than once while stuck in traffic, and while I might have otherwise wished to have a .50 cal mounted on my car’s roof, I found a personal calm in the music.) “You Stepped Out of a Dream” delivers a good dose of energy, followed by Butch Warren’s “The Backbone”, a bass-driven number. “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” returns to ballad mode - gorgeous tones again, with an appropriate quote of “Over the Rainbow” - and “McSplivens” ends the album on a happily swinging note. (Now there’s a song title for you. Supposedly named after Gordon’s dog, it’s a curious name for either canine or composition.)

I don’t know why, after owning Go! for years, it took me so long to learn that A Swingin’ Affair is from the same stock, and as far as I’m concerned now, it reaches the same level of effortless wonder. The new Gordon listener would do well to start with either disc, making sure to acquire both before long.

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