Dexter Gordon: Manhattan Symphonie

Dexter Gordon
Manhattan Symphonie

Like Art Pepper’s, Dexter Gordon’s high-grade productive later career was blessed with the presence of marvellous George Cables on piano. There’s a startling unaccompanied piano solo in the middle of the opening track to Manhattan Symphonie, “As Time Goes By”. Apparently Gordon taught his pianist the tune, which he wanted very much to play.

Like “Body and Soul”, the famous track on this set, that tune has close associations with the early 1940s, when Gordon’s career began as one of several teenagers — like the slightly younger Joe Temperley in Scotland — who had entrée to bands because established musicians in their twenties were away on war service.

Gordon came up among or in earshot of a lot of mightily impressive tenor saxophonists influenced by Coleman Hawkins, and by people who had heard and based their styles on Hawkins before he went to Europe for a lot of the 1930s. They were doing different things, without taking up the alternative approach to the same instrument pioneered by Lester Young, but certainly some of them were influenced by Young’s conception of melodic improvisation.

Hawkins approached improvisation within a grand geometrical structure of harmonies; he’d worked hard on the study of harmony. Young made no mistakes in harmony; while exploring a melodic expression nobody needs harmonic studies to be moved by. To try to play in Young’s manner with a big Hawkins tone was no easy business, as the big sound imposed restrictions. Modifying it did, however, open up new possibilities, and when Charlie Parker’s harmonic and rhythmic innovations attained currency Gordon found himself one of the first people able to explore them on tenor saxophone. Teddy Edwards was another, but you’d have to search hard for a third.

Musicians who worked with a lighter tone might have had something of an advantage, but when Stan Getz recorded for Savoy in the late 1940s there was no mistaking the Gordon influence. It remained, regardless of changes in his tone. The signal quality of Gordon’s playing is that while other players, in improvising on chords, tended to have to play a lot of notes both to keep in touch with the harmonies they were working through, and also to keep the horn in tune, he didn’t need to make the detours. He plays directly through the transitions between chords.

It’s fascinating to hear Gordon on Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear” here starting out with a sound far closer to Hawkins than anywhere which comes easily to mind from long acquaintance with recordings he made from the 1940s through the 1950s, and the fourteen or fifteen years he lived in Denmark after a time in jail on narcotics charges denied him the NYPD card essential to play gigs on the island which this set celebrates. His time as a convict got him off heroin, and started the second career as an actor which preceded his time in Europe and resumed not only by acting in person and on tenor with Round Midnight but playing a little piano for Robin Williams’s Oliver Sacks. He’d retired from saxophone before the first of these, after the hero’s return to New York which followed on his resumption of residence in the USA — and was distinguished by such performances as this.

“Body and Soul” is indeed a striking performance, set off by a figure of harmonic paraphrase on piano which he echoes before beginning to play across it. Cables keeps bearing it in mind, implying it and resuming it differently varied as atmospheric background between passages of considerably fluent release, and underlinings of climaxes. Rufus Reid maintains tremendous momentum with a light tone, taking up the figure during Cables’s springlike piano solo, the exuberance emphasised by Eddie Gladden’s cross-rhythms and strong accentuations on drums. Gordon’s is a very distinctive voice on tenor, dark and no nonsense. There are more Hawkins echoes in his largely quieter-toned still big-toned lengthy coda.

“LTD” is his 1940s Savoy blues “Long Tall Dexter” of thirty years before this date, with a fleet and fresh intro from Cables and a deployment of extensive resources by the rhythm section chorus after chorus until the piano solo might be a representation of the saxophonist with deserved satisfaction getting his breath back. The bass solo has the atmosphere of a happy jam, like Gordon’s resumptions to trade fours with the drummer, and a nice little coda for bowed bass and piano.

There’s a dark buzz to the tone on a “Secret Love” which splits the last note of ‘Luh-uv” and dances through the last lengthy solo on the set with a youthful delight. Cables’ solo has an almost calypso atmosphere, and some up-to-the-minute piano business with a lot of melodic paraphrase and fragments of the theme laid down in Gordon’s solo and taken up again in Reed’s very good solo. The long coda emphasises delight, but things were heading in that direction after the pastiche Coltrane at the start of “Moment’s Notice”. Like “Tanya”, “Moment’s Notice” is paced medium tempo, and as often on this set that again playful selection of the bossa rhythm licenses Cables, and indeed Reed, to play with relaxed happiness as if giving the game away that the quick fade of the track was likely followed by delighted laughter. No doubt the quartet enjoyed each other’s company a lot.

RATING 8 / 10