‘One night at the “Spotlite” club, a drunk dropped a handful of change into the bell of Dexter Gordon’s horn during a solo. Outwardly impassive, Gordon continued his lovely ballad statement; when he finished, he calmly upended his saxophone and pocketed the coins’. Writer Ira Gitler’s story, from his important ‘Jazz Masters Of The Forties’ (MacMillan), encapsulates the atmosphere of bebop, the Fifty-Second Street clubs and the late World War Two days. More important, it tells us a great deal about Dexter Gordon, his composure, humour and dedication to the task in hand. Dexter found fame in the ‘forties; still in his early twenties he was dubbed ‘Vice-Pres’ by fellow musicians, a mark of respect acknowledging his brilliant of the styles of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Ross Russell quoted Dexter as saying ‘Hawk was the master of the horn, a musician who did everything possible with it, the right way. But when Pres appeared, we all started listening to him alone. Pres had an entirely new sound, one that we seemed to be waiting for. Pres was the first to tell a story on the horn’.
‘Telling A Story’ is something very important as far as Dexter is concerned. Like Lester Young he likes to learn the lyric of the ballad he wants to play and sometimes surprises a club audience by reciting the words before a performance. He is likely to surprise them even more with the apparently endless flow of improvised choruses once he gets into his stride. On this album, for example, he takes thirty choruses straight off on Blues Walk and was clearly capable of carrying on still further had he not wished to feature the remaining members of his quartet. Dexter Keith Gordon is clearly a musician of considerable stature commencing with his physical height - he is six feet five inches tall - and continuing with his masterly commanding sound. Ira Gitler relates how, in the ‘forties Dexter would often ‘make a belated entrance and attract interest merely by putting his saxophone together in view of the crowd. Once he showed up at Lincoln Square with a finger encased in a cumbersome bandage; though unable to play, he was the centre of attention’.
In 1962, at the age of 39, Dexter came to Europe for the first time. He returned to New York in December, 1964 but went back to Copenhagen in June, 1965. The Montmartre Jazzhuis was one of Dexter’s favourite clubs and he played there often. One night he remembers in particular; ‘the boss hired Paul Gonsalves and Don Byas to work with me. Oh, it was fantastic! It was in the summer, it was hot, the joint was just packed; you couldn’t move. After the first set Don took off his shirt and undershirt; he was just playing in his pants; you know, playing nude tenor!’ Dexter is also likely to remember another summer night in July, 1967 when he fronted a rhythm section containing two expatriate American jazzmen, Kenny Drew and Al Heath, plus the Danish bass player Nils-Henning Orsted Pederson.
That Dexter felt at home with the rhythm section and the club atmosphere is apparent from the opening theme statement of the medium tempo ‘Like Someone In Love’. This Jimmy Van Heusen song dates from 1944 when it appeared in the film ‘Belle Of The Yukon.’ Composer Alec Wilder rates it very highly and referred to it in his book ‘American Popular Song’ (Oxford University Press) as having ‘a simply lovely melodic line’ and that ‘the influence of Jerome Kern is manifest.’ Dexter would undoubtedly agree with Wilder for he treats the melody with respect, embellishing it only slightly in his theme chorus. The tempo is ideal and the seven choruses of spontaneously improvised tenor build to a point where the listener must surely think that Dexter will simply go on for ever, building and swinging without once repeating himself. Kenny Drew, the New York-born pianist who settled in Europe in 1960, solos after Dexter, followed by Pederson. Dexter shares two choruses with Al ‘Tootie’ Heath before reintroducing the theme, this time with a change to 3/4 in bars 1 to 8 and 17 to 24. Tootie, brother of the bass player Percy and saxophonist Jimmy, came to Europe in the summer of 1965 and returned to the United States in October, 1968, much to the regret of residents such as Dexter and Kenny Drew.
There Will Never Be Another You, follows the same basic format as that used on ‘Like Someone In Love’ including the adoption of a suitable medium tempo. Dexter is inspired to great heights during his eight choruses and the tempo is held to perfection. The Gordon Humour comes out at the beginning of the first chorus shared with Al Heath when he throws in a reminder of a tune from the ‘fifties, All Day, All Night, Mary Ann.
Body and Soul is a challenge to every tenor saxophonist, particularly since that day in 1939 when Coleman Hawkins made his first, and best, recording of the song. Gordon commences with a cadenza introduction and states the melody helped by Pederson’s long notes. He moves gracefully away from the tune in his second chorus, quoting from ‘Nancy With The Laughing Face’ in a wholly logical manner at bars 9 to 16, then makes way for a chorus of splendid ballad piano from the consistently underrated Kenny Drew. Dexter returns for a recapitulation of the theme as a half chorus, extending his coda to include the bop ballad If You Could See Me Now.
Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson is credited with Blues Walk following his recording of the number for Blue Note in 1958 although the functional nature of the tune indicates that its true author might have been one of several other jazzmen. Gordon tears into this blues with inspired abandon, ranging freely over the full extent of the saxophone to produce the notes he wants. The books tell us that the bottom register of the tenor stops at A flat, a tenth below middle C, but most tenor saxophonists know that the range can be extended downwards a semi-tone by ‘muting’ the bell of the instrument. The sight of the tall Dexter Gordon pirouetting on one foot as he inserts one knee in the bell to honk out a low note is, unfortunately something we cannot see on record! But we should be grateful that recording apparatus was on hand at the Montmarte on the evening of July 20th, 1967 to capture the superlative music created by these four acknowledged experts. Alun Morgan.
Recorded at the Montmartre Jazzhus, Copenhagen on July 20, 1967
Dexter Gordon (tenor saxophone), Kenny Drew (piano), Nils-Henning Orsted Pederson (bass), Albert Heath (drums)
Like Someone In Love 12.38, Come Rain Or Come Shine 11.04, There Will Never Be Another You 12.29, Body And Soul 9.31, Blues Walk 13.25