The Inspired Sounds of a Newly Released Dexter Gordon Set
Dexter Gordon, the seminal tenor saxophonist of the bop movement, remained largely in the same framework of musical ideas from early in his career to his last recordings. Gordon, who was born in 1923, started to record at the age of eighteen, was already a notable solo artist at twenty-two, and continued recording until the nineteen-eighties. (He died in 1990.) Within that wide span of time, there’s relatively little variety in the repertory that he played, the formation of his bands, and his own musical material. But there’s vast divergence from performance to performance. For musicians whose ideas are in perpetual advance, the thrills offered by those ideas often take precedence over the details of specific performances, whereas the essence of Gordon’s artistry, within his self-defined framework, is the spirit of the moment, the sense of inspiration and imagination, of emotional engagement and excitement that the specific event sparks—and the newly released two-disk set “Dexter Gordon Quartet at the Subway Club 1973” (Elemental Music) is among his most inspired recordings.
Gordon, who lived in Europe from 1962 to 1976, performed there far more frequently than he’d have been able to do in the United States at the time, when jazz clubs were closing, and he was recorded far more frequently there than would have been possible here, because record labels were going through a time of contraction as well. As a result, there’s a plethora of live and studio recordings of Gordon in Europe from the late sixties through the mid-seventies, and more keep coming out, at a brisk pace. Most of them are good, some are great, and the new release is one of the finest I’ve heard. It actually features recordings from three different concerts (and venues, and years); the first disk, recorded at a basement club in Cologne, captures a musical miracle on the wing.
From the start, Gordon—playing with a local trio of musicians including two Americans, the pianist Irv Rochlin and the drummer Tony Inzalaco, and the Dutch bassist Henk Haverhoek—is bold, probing, and energized. His first tune is Antônio Carlos Jobim’s bossa-nova classic “Wave”; as the reissue coördinator, Michael Cuscuna (who recorded Gordon throughout his return to the United States, starting in 1976), notes, Gordon sticks close to the melody. But there’s nothing tentative or reticent about the performance; rather, Gordon toys with the melody with a feline ferocity. His tone has a rainbow of overtones and a rough edge of excitement, and, even in stating the theme, he slows it down to savor, flourish, inflect, and shred individual notes, playing far behind Inzalaco’s beat with a sly and sensuous elasticity. Gordon composes his solo—which runs more than eleven minutes—in short, sharply carved phrases that he strings together with a rarefied eloquence, tossing in fragments of the melody for sheer delight; he plays with a majestic sense of contained fury.
A long-heralded master of the ballad, Gordon plays “Didn’t We” with a yearning and breathy vulnerability, returning for a second solo, while restating the theme, in a time-stopping coda of tremulous delicacy. The mildly comedic Western chestnut “On the Trail” is treated like a contrapuntal comedy, with Gordon merely nudging the melody before taking off at a loping tempo, to toss off swirling and jagged phrases and emphatic long notes throughout the spectrum of his horn, offering whistles nearly too high for the human ear and low-note blasts on the Richter scale. The tender tune “Secret Love” is taken at a propulsively fast tempo, and Gordon takes the melody apart before he even states it, buzzing through it energetically with a revel in the very sound of his saxophone (the recording, by an unnamed engineer, catches it avidly); there are moments when individual notes and short bursts could be the apotheosis of saxophone. It’s the sound of an athletic, physical joy in creation. (There’s only one other recording of Gordon that I know of in which he plays with such unleashed sonic splendor: an album featuring a performance from Montreux in 1970.)
The second disk features the final performance from 1973, another uptempo version of a standard, “It’s You or No One,” that starts with a peculiar and wondrous Scotch—like skip and drone before taking off at a fast pace. The fifteen-minute improvisation, though, isn’t quite in the realm of its four predecessors. It feels a bit more habit-bound; its drama and its inspiration aren’t as focussed as on the first disk. The second disk also features two tracks recorded in the Hague, in 1971, and two more, from Stuttgart, in 1965, also with local trios; a highlight is Gordon’s brief but far-reaching second solo on Thelonious Monk’s “ ’Round Midnight,” from the earlier concert. But it’s the first disk that’s among the highlights of Gordon’s recorded legacy.