Dexter Gordon: Jazz Moods: ‘Round Midnight

Dexter Gordon
Jazz Moods: 'Round Midnight

The late Dexter Gordon was one of the momentous jazz instrumentalists. A decent happy hour this, for the many people without the time or resources to explore the many, many hours of music this physical and musical giant recorded. It all comes from his last years, when following a long sojourn in Europe, notably Copenhagen, he moved back to North America for his last years.

He was received with some measure of what he deserved, and continued to add to what had become a huge discography. Kenny Drew, Sr. and the recently and far-too-early departed Nils-Henning Oersted Pederson were with him on a lot of nights when gigs were recorded. Before Denmark he had worked with Drew and a host of other great players on Blue Note sessions, and quite apart from his epoch-making performances on tenor saxophone recorded in the 1940s, all the Blue Note and Copenhagen recordings — and a notable concert with Bud Powell — are there as evidence of his greatness.

At the end of a full but not long life he drew on the acting experience which had begun as an amateur when locked away for drug offences, and on his own experience, to star in the film ‘Round Midnight, as a character based biographically on Bud Powell, with something of Lester Young thrown in. I saw the film in the house of a friend who’d retired from psychiatry, and he was amazed at the medical accuracy of Gordon’s depiction. The fact that he also played tenor in character in the film, playing in a simplified almost rudimentary manner, curiously led some musicians who had never heard of him to assume he was an unknown actor who played saxophone on the side.

In truth, his innovations in technique were crucial alike to Stan Getz and John Coltrane. He was a master.

He was moving toward retirement when in New York he made the succession of albums for Columbia represented on the present selection. Well as he still could play, the reader will gather that there’s no shortage of alternatives.

One is Manhattan Symphonie, the 1978 Columbia album from which “As Time Goes By” was drawn. The whole album’s reissue is imminent. Gordon’s tone had sharpened by the time he taped that set. “Laura” and “You’re Blasé” here come from Sophisticated Giant, both tenor features with a small band of genuine notables. Who plays the lovely piano solo on “You’re Blasé”? Whose are the arrangements? Possibly on “Ruby, My Dear” (from the 1978 Great Encounters album) Gordon’s sound is less hard because he has only the sensitive piano of Maestro Cables rather than a full band. The rest of that album, as its title implies, involves Gordon working in tandem with other front-line partners.

“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (from Gotham City, 1980) has Cedar Walton on piano, and drawing back from the attempts at his old full sound Gordon is mellower and almost breathy.

“How Long has This Been Going On?” comes as advertised from the soundtrack of the ‘Round Midnight film, and Gordon is engaged strictly in accompaniment, no solo, to Lonette McKee. There seems something desperate or daft in the blurb’s mentioning that Herbie Hancock plays piano, but otherwise you might not have known. An odd choice, this.

On the performance of “‘Round Midnight” the tenor tone is big and dark but not hard. Gordon’s solo is a long one, and the performance lightens up through the equally long trumpet solo of the here unlisted Woody Shaw, a very great player who died far too young and who never became sufficiently famous for the marketing department to have named him here. This solo is a highlight, I’d have them know. The rest of the thirteen and a quarter minutes definitely weren’t wasted by giving great George Cables due solo opportunity. He heats things up to the perfect temperature for Gordon’s return. Terrific playing right through the coda. This track was issued on the 1976 Homecoming album and added to the soundtrack album from the film,

While “Body and Soul” was no doubt chosen for its fame as another tenorist’s great vehicle, but while there’s a praised recording with George Cables, this one is again from the film soundtrack. I’m fascinated to hear the plaintive, protesting, and in-film character opening, with the clear intention that the character would play a bum note on the way to a moving complete performance.

That is presented here out of context, as if Dexter Gordon in propria persona would slip in that way, and continue with a performance; and he and Herbie Hancock allow this to be issued on a CD as an example of Dexter Gordon’s playing. Since this CD does publish that track as Gordon in propria persona without explanation, it should of course and at once be withdrawn. Does anybody have Herbie Hancock’s e-mail address?

RATING 6 / 10