[3 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Daddy Plays the Horn was released in 1955 on Bethlehem Records, and is now reissued as part of a campaign to celebrate the key jazz label. But this one is also a particular celebration of Dexter Gordon. If the title seems a bit plainspoken as opposed to, say, A Swingin’ Affair, in context it’s far more than just a statement of fact. Instead, it’s a statement of return, a welcome one for Gordon at the time. In 1955, Gordon was just coming back to life as an artist, having spent much of the previous years battling drug-addiction demons. And so Daddy Plays the Horn is an important document of a revitalized career, one that would bear classic fruit later on.
There’s a clear focus on getting Gordon back in the spotlight on this record, as the basic set up for each song is to feature his solos heavily. The structures and tempos don’t exactly catch you off guard, but the traditional approach does create room for Gordon to win over audiences that may have forgotten him. And he does just that. The opening title track is a deeply swinging number, one that may have Gordon high in the mix but still gets the whole band working. You can hear Gordon feeling out the space of the track as he goes, his solos rising and falling at will, sounding both expansive and intimate by turns. He juxtaposes nicely with the more hushed delivery of Kenny Drew’s piano, which may be quiet but still hits with strength. “Confirmation” picks up the pace a bit and gets Gordon in the groove, but it also shows a tighter cohesion from all the players, especially the vital basslines of Leroy Vinnegar on the track.
Those sides show Gordon getting his fire back, and the band is right there with him. Drew is particularly impressive here. His solo in “Confirmation” is as jumping and exciting as Gordon’s horn work, and provides a playful counterpoint. He also drives the hard-stomping closer “You Can Depend on Me” with his unpredictable phrasings and the soft way he creates space before filling it with percussive runs. It’s so easy to get lost in the interplay between Gordon and Drew that it’s easy to forget the solid foundations provided by Vinnegar and drummer Larry Marable. Both give these songs, especially ballads like “Swinging the Dream: Darn That Dream” an important weight.
The band runs through six varied and solid tunes here, but you never forget whose show it is. This focus on Gordon is of course important in reestablishing his name, but as an album outside of its historical context, it sometimes feels a bit by the numbers. Now, of course, Gordon by the numbers is still inventive and vital, but it’s hard not to hold this up to later albums and feel like something is missing. “Autumn in New York”, for example, is a bittersweetly shuffling ballad, but the mix that favors Gordon here sometimes drowns out the other plays, making Gordon’s playing feel too big for the space, even unmoored. When Drew’s piano comes in, it’s as if he’s been patched in from another song. That’s not to say the song doesn’t work, but these moments feel more like nascent steps towards later greatness. It may be unfair to hold being merely very good against Dexter Gordon, but if he has better records, this one is still a crucial document to understanding Gordon’s career and, thus, a vital piece of the history of jazz.