Friday, March 31, 2017

Dexter Gordon - "Take the 'A' Train"

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

Earlier this year, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles posted reviews of two newly released recordings by the late, iconic tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon in Europe in the late 1960’s: [1] Fried Bananas [Gearbox GB 1535] and [2] Dexter Gordon: Both Sides of Midnight [Black Lion Records BLP 60103; ORGM-1062].

The distinguishing features of both these recordings was that they were recorded in performance in Europe, with European-based rhythm sections [that included some American expatriates], and all showcased Dex and the group stretching out over extended improvisations.

If this wasn’t a surfeit of riches, along comes a third recording by Dexter with these same distinguishing features in the form of ORG Music Group’s LP reissue of the Black Lion LP - Dexter Gordon: Take the ‘A’ Train [ Black Lion LP 60133; ORGM-2085].

In our commentary about  Dexter Gordon: Both Sides of Midnight we drew the distinction between “stretching out” [taking extended choruses] and “saying something” [playing a long solo that engages a listener’s attention because of the manner in which it is structured and its storytelling qualities].

Besides the technical mastery of the instrument that allows for the easy flow of ideas, why are Dexter Gordon’s extended solos so good?

The answer to that question lies in the late, great bassist, bandleader and composer Charles Mingus assertion that “You have to improvise on something.”

And in terms of that “something,” master Jazz musicians like Charles and Dexter Gordon knew that the better the melodic and harmonic basis for the improvisation the easier it was to take extended solos over them.

Interestingly, two of the tunes on Dexter Gordon: Take the ‘A’ Train are included with the 100 Jazz Standards in the eminent Jazz scholar Ted Gioia’s book The Jazz Standards A Guide to the Repertoire because not only are all Jazz musicians expected to know the melody and the chord changes to these tunes, they are also melodies that musicians find intriguing in the sense that they facilitate their ability to say something in the form of expressive and meaningful solos. They can play all day on the melody and chords of these tunes.

And that exactly what Dex, Kenny and NHOP do on But Not For Me and Take the A Train. Ted explains why this is so in the following excerpts from his definitive book

But Not for Me
Composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin

“One of George Gershwin's most beloved standards, "But Not for Me" seems to find a new crossover audience every decade. Film makers love it—not only did the original Broadway musical (Gershwin's Girl Crazy from 1930) inspire three movie adaptations, but "But Not for Me" has regularly appeared in later hit films, including Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). The song even inspired its own movie, Walter Lang's But Not for Me (1959), which was one of Clark Gable's final efforts.

The song gained some traction with jazz players during the 1940's—Harry James even enjoyed a modest hit with his 1941 recording, which featured vocalist Helen Forrest — but Gershwin's composition was better suited for the cool jazz stars of the 1950's. Chet Baker may have lacked Ella's technique and range, but his 1954 recording of "But Not for Me" ranks among his finest moments in the studio, both for its quintessentially cool vocal and his lyrical trumpet solo. Four months later, Miles Davis recorded the song for his Bags' Groove album, and his two released takes find him playing it initially in a medium tempo similar to Baker's approach, while the second take is faster, and a better setting for his front-line bandmate Sonny Rollins. Ahmad Jamal delivered an appealingly understated piano performance on his live recording from the Pershing from 1958, which was one of the best-selling jazz albums of the period. The Modern Jazz Quartet and Kenny Burrell offered similarly subdued interpretations around this same time.

Most later jazz renditions of "But Not for Me" have kept to the cool ethos. But Coltrane offered a dissenting view with his 1960 recording from his My Favorite Things album. He incorporates his "Giant Steps" chord substitution scheme into the Gershwin piece, and the result is a case study in the advanced harmonic concepts of the time, worthy of inclusion in the curriculum of any jazz educational institution.

Dexter Gordon dispenses with the Coltrane chord changes but achieves a similar energy level on his 1967 recording in Copenhagen, an intense 15-minute outing on "But Not for Me" — including nine full tenor choruses that persuasively demonstrate why this saxophonist was such a formidable combatant at a jam session.”

Take the A Train
Composed by Billy Strayhorn  

Strayhorn had been working on the piece as early as 1939, but was hesitant about presenting it to Ellington because he feared that it sounded like the type of song that Fletcher Henderson, an Ellington rival, might use. … Ellington's decision to adopt the song as his new theme was validated by its immense success. His February 1941 recording stayed on the chart for seven weeks, and soon the tune was picked up by other bandleaders. ...

The hook in the melody stems from its willingness to land emphatically on the flat fifth — the most modern and unstable of the blue notes — in the opening phrase. The effect is jarring but in an uplifting way, and demonstrates that what most Tin Pan Alley composers might have dismissed as excessive dissonance could, in the context of the Ellington band, serve as the most memorable moment in a hit song. …

"Take the A Train" remains a favorite among musicians and fans, and has become so well known that many outside the jazz arena—from Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones to the rock-pop band Chicago—have tried it on for size. Like other Ellington-Strayhorn standards, "Take the A Train" is often interpreted with reverent fidelity as a period piece, yet some have managed successful reconfigurations. Clifford Brown and Max Roach mounted a hot hard bop takeover of the tune in 1955, and even do a better job than the Duke at mimicking the sound of an actual train. Among the various solo piano versions, Michel Petrucciani's riveting boogie-woogie arrangement rises far above the usual cliches of that idiom, while Sun Ra's live performance in Italy from 1977 manages somehow to respect the original spirit of the composition while gradually layering on various avant-garde elements, eventually ending with a pedal-to-the-metal explosion that threatens to derail the proceedings. But no tour of "Take the A Train" is complete if it doesn't include composer Billy Strayhorn's own performance, captured in an elegant arrangement with strings from 1961.”

Mark Gardner, a frequent contributor to JazzJournal and other Jazz periodical as well as a significant contributor to Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, wrote the liner notes to  Dexter Gordon: Take the ‘A’ Train [ Black Lion LP 60133; ORGM-2085] and they provide some wonderful atmospheric detail as to what was going down with Dexter at the time these tracks were recorded.

“The upstairs room of a Birmingham suburban public house was the unlikely setting for my first encounter with Dexter Gordon. That was in the autumn of 1962 when the tenor saxophonist was freshly-arrived in Europe and ready to embark on one of the most productive and happy periods of his career. Clutching a glass of the local brew with no great relish, Dexter chatted affably between sets.

I remember we discussed Wardell Gray at some length, and Dexter smiled fondly as he recalled their intermittent association. He also reported having recently made some recordings with Sonny Clark which he felt were better than his earlier comeback albums.

On the stand, the six foot, five inch figure, sharply togged in houndstooth jacket, charcoal grey slacks and button-down shirt, galvanized that audience with some of the most potent playing any of us had heard. Dexter made a lot of lifetime fans that night.

Five years later, I caught up with Dexter again during a brief weekend gig he made in Manchester, at the behest of the Garside Brothers. Once again on those evenings, his work was electrifying, as Peter Clayton will confirm, since we both sat together spellbound by the power and majesty of Gordon's improvisations.

Just a few months earlier, Dex had been captured on several peak playing nights at his favorite Jazzhus Montmartre club in a series of sets recorded under the supervision of Alan Bates for Black Lion. The resultant performances were of outstanding quality.

They caught Dexter in expansive, relaxed mood in front of an appreciative audience. The Black Lions are undoubtedly among his finest European recordings. This was recognized when a brace of albums from the "Montmartre Collection" were released in the early  1970's and it was comforting to know there were more of that calibre where those came from!

In this new compilation, some 15 years later, here are some of the "more" from those exciting sessions in the Copenhagen venue which was Preacher Gordon's pulpit.

His companions were men with whom Long Tall Dexter felt secure. He had worked with pianist Kenny Drew in California during the mid-1950's, and they had later recorded together for Blue Note in New York and Paris. Close friends as well as being longstanding musical associates, their partnership flourished anew on the Continent.

Niels Henning 0rsted Pedersen was only 20 at the time of these dates, but Gordon regarded him as the best bass player in Europe, an opinion he probably still holds to this day. Actually, Niels Henning long ago became an international favorite, super soloist and a rock in any rhythm section he graces. The big Dane has more than confirmed Dexter's excellent judgement.

As for Al "Tootie" Heath, drummer and youngest of the richly talented Heath brothers, his propulsive work suited Gordon and meshed perfectly with the accompaniment of Drew and NH0P So in this quartet

A measure of the group's ease and unity of purpose is the fact that practically every performance is an extended workout, but as Dexter and Drew unfurl chorus after chorus of inspired and dramatic improvisation who notices the march of time!

As the recording begins, the leader cuts a surging swath through But Not For Me territory. The leader's style, evolved through such carefully selected influences as Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Don Byas and Ben Webster, also reveals that he closely listened to younger men like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. These ingredients were intelligently absorbed in a wholly personal framework. Tonally and rhythmically he is completely his own man, a proud, individualistic voice. But Not For Me contains archetypal Dexter with brilliant contributions from Drew and NH0P in deep examination of Gershwin's excellent progression. The long coda includes a number of throwaway quotations from Three Blind Mice and My Kind Of Love among others.

The other scorching item in this particular selection is an express version of Take The 'A' Train, a Duke Ellington chestnut well roasted by the saxophonist who maintains a musical outpouring that is positively majestic for nine incredible choruses. This is an object lesson in how to build a solo. Drew, whose clever paraphrase of Duke's own intro sets the scene, lays out for the opening brace by Dexter, but returns to prompt and probe. Gordon greets the pianist's resumption with a lick from "And The Angels Sing."

"Take The 'A' Train" is an essential piece of Dexteriana, a brilliant example of his colossal talent and artistic discipline. Listen to this solo 50 times and it will still surprise and satisfy.

Since the time of these recordings, Dexter Gordon has continued to flourish, making his mark as a sensitive actor in the movie Hound Midnight and recording prolifically. He re-settled in the USA during the 1970's and for the first time was signed by a major label.

However, I firmly believe that he performed at his peak in the 1960's and it is now clear that these Black Lion sessions are among his best works - full of vibrant energy and creative consistency.

I find it difficult to believe that the lean, lanky, youthful looking man I first met all those years ago is now a veteran in his 67th year. But with eyes closed and "Take

The 'A' Train" playing -  the years roll back as I'm once again in that smoke-filled pub lounge, and Dexter, knees shaking, and fingers flying is educating us all over again. And it was exactly the same, I'm sure, at the Montmartre as the hip Danes worshiped at the master's feet. We are privy to that experience on this invaluable set.”

Dexter Gordon: Take the ‘A’ Train is available in streaming, audio CD and vinyl formats from Amazon and other online retailers and it is also available through iTunes.

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