Monday, March 20, 2017

"Dexter Gordon: Both Sides of Midnight" - Stretching Out and Saying Something

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Stretch out. To improvise for an extended period, sufficiently long to allow a thorough working out of the possibilities offered by a theme. The term implies an unexpectedly lengthy, inventive, even self-indulgent solo in a context in which a short improvisation would be normal, and presumably derives from the consequent "stretching out" or extension of the piece as a whole. A renowned example of such a solo is Paul Gonsalves's 27-chorus improvisation on Duke Ellington's Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 [the recording of which was issued on the album Ellington at Newport Columbia CL934.”
- Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

“When a musician successfully reaches a discerning audience, moves its members to applaud or shout praises, raises the energy to dramatic proportions, and leaves a sonorous memory that lingers long after, he or she has moved beyond technical competence, beyond the chord changes, and into the realm of "saying something." Since Saying something—or "sayin' something," as it's usually pronounced—requires soloists who can play, accompanists who can respond, and audiences who can hear within the context of the richly textured aural legacy of jazz ..., this verbal aesthetic image underscores the collaborative and communicative quality of improvisation.”
- Ingrid Monson, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction

“Stretching out” by playing multiple, improvised choruses became more of a feature of Jazz with the advent of the long-playing record in the 1950’s, but musicians like John Coltrane certainly expanded it to new levels in the 1960, especially in the context of “live” performances.

And to mix metaphors even further, “stretching out” takes the concept of “telling a story,” in some cases, to the point of writing a novel - or, at least, a novella - when some solos run over 45 minutes and can exceed an hour.

But take it from me as a former drummer who had to sit back there keeping time while these sonic odysseys were undertaken, soloists who can take extended solos while keeping it interesting to the point of “saying something,” are few and far between.  Running scales up-and-down a soprano saxophone for 30 minutes is not - saying something - it’s practicing.

If you want to listen a quintessential correlation between “stretching out” and “saying something,” them by all means get yourself a copy of the recently released Dexter Gordon Quartet Both Sides of Midnight and sit back and hear how it’s done on the four exquisite tracks that form this recording.
Both Sides of Midnight  - Black Lion Essential Reissue Series BLP 60103/Orgm-1062  - features iconic tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon with Kenny Drew on piano, Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums on music that was recorded at the Montmartre Jazzhuis, Copenhagen, on July 20, 1967.

This music is from a time in Dexter’s career when he was back on the scene and had just culminated working on a series of six very successful LP’s for Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff at Blue Note Records. Some of the music that appeared on these albums was from 1963 and 1964 recording sessions that took place in Paris [one of which included Drew and Orsted Pederson with Arthur Taylor on drums] as Dexter began to explore the European Jazz scene with an eye toward making it his permanent home later in that decade.

With the advent of the Beatles and the English rock groups plus the US-based, psychedelic rock bands, all of which captured the musical interests of younger listening audiences in the US [while, at the same time, the Free Jazz movement was turning off older, more established Jazz audiences], many Jazz musicians, as Mike Zwerin, the longtime International Herald Tribune Jazz columnist maintained, “moved to Europe to live,” Dexter among them.

Alun Morgan, the noted Jazz author and critic, who over the course of his long and distinguished career, contributed the liner notes to over 2,500 recordings, the following from Both Sides of Midnight among them:

“I am constantly surprised-although experience should have taught me otherwise-by the number of American jazz musicians who chose to live in Europe. A soloist previously known from his work on records turns up for a booking at Ronnie Scott's. Where did he come from. New York City? Very often the answer is no. lie has been living on the Continent for some time. When Blue Mole recorded Hank Mobley in Paris in the summer of 1969 five of the six men on the date - Mobley. Dizzy Reece. Philly Joe Jones. Slide Hampton and pianist Vince Benedetti - happened to be in France although they are better known for their American ties.

Since 1962 Dexter Gordon has been one of the most commanding and familiar figures in the jazz clubs and jazz festivals of London, Paris. Copenhagen. Stockholm. Lugano. Molde and anywhere else where jazz is appreciated. His attachment to Europe and Copenhagen-more so than any other city-is clearly defined. By coincidence he shares the same birthdate. February 27th with another great American tenor saxophonist once domiciled in Copenhagen, the late Ben Webster. (Ben was born in 1909. Dexter in 1923.) Both Gordon and Webster played many times at the Montmartre Jazzhuis and each chose to be accompanied by Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson. Al Heath, brother of bass player Percy and saxophonist Jimmy, was not always available. In terms of European residency Al was the newcomer at the time of the Dexter Gordon Montmartre sessions. He left America in the summer of 1965 and elected to return home in October. 1968. ("I miss the scene" he said when he left. "I have lost all my fearss about the U.S. and I can understand the whole situation a little better now.")

Pianist Kenny Drew, who's playing on this and so many other European-recorded albums, is so essential to the group, was born in New York City in 1928. He left America in June, 1960 with the cast of the play The Connection. It was ostensibly, for a mere six weeks work but Drew knew when he left that he would not return to America. True to his beliefs he has lived and worked in Europe ever since, at first in Paris but latterly in Denmark where he married the daughter of the Danish band leader Leo Mathisen. The fourth member of the quartet is a European. Bass player Niels- Henning Orsted Pedersen was bom in Denmark in 1946 and was offered a job in the Count Basie band at the age of 17. Only a complication involving a work permit for one so young prevented him from taking up the offer. Dexter rates him very highly; indeed he thinks he is the best bass player in Europe.

This disc is the first in a series emanating from a highly productive engagement at the Montmartre Jazzhuis. Alan Bates arranged to record the quartet as it played a series of sets at the club. The four musicians gelled into a remarkably cohesive and consistently empathetic unit First out of the bag was "Devilette," akin to the throbbing, modal style of composition associated with Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue album. In this case it is a nine written by bassist Ben Tucker, a jazzman well known on the West Coast and a veteran of many recording sessions. Gordon likes to lace his sets , with ballads, sometimes throwing in a tear-jerker such as "Heartaches" but in this instance he turns in a beautiful and sensitive "For All We Know," making full use of that incredibly huge tone which has become so much an identifying part of his style.

Two of the tunes were written by Sonny Rollins, a tenor saxophonist who has an unabashed admiration for Dexter's own playing. "Doxy," first recorded at a Miles Davis session on which Rollins played tenor, is a contemporary treatment of what is often referred to as the "JaDa" sequence for the two tunes share the same structure and chord progression.

The lengthy "Sonnymoon For Two" is the first and last resort for the jazzman for it is a basic twelve-bar blues. Dexter is at his finest when he is allowed to stretch out on a number such as this. I remember talking to drummer Stan Levey about one of his record dates at which he was the leader; Dexter, Conte Candoli and Frank Rosolino comprised the front-line and during the course of the session Gordon told Levey he had a time which might be suitable for recording purposes. "How long is it?" asked Stan. Dexter said, "Oh, about this length", holding his hands some three feet apart. That tune turned out to be "Stanley The Steamer," a long but totally relaxed blues which was the highspot of that particular album.

Similarly "Sonnymoon For Two" is a seemingly endless, timeless examination of the blues. After two theme choruses Dexter plunges into no less than twenty-eight inspired and spontaneously improvised choruses, maintaining an incredibly high level of performance. Kenny Drew, who's playing adds so much to the success of the entire LP, embarks on some twenty choruses of his own (and note his two-fisted "stride" approach around chorus sixteen!). When Dexter returns after the bass solo he plays one chorus then indulges in a favourite whim, that of introducing a quotation into his solo. In this case his second chorus after the piano and bass interludes is prefaced with "You Won't Be Satisfied Until You Break My Heart," a mid "forties song forgotten by most who heard it at the time.”

The CD is available from Amazon, or from

The following video is from the August 5, 1967 appearance by Dexter, Kenny, Niels Henning and “Tootie” at the Montmartre Jazzhuis, Copenhagen.

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