Saturday, July 30, 2022

Dexter Gordon - "Landslide" - The Blue Note Years Part 10

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Dexter Gordon was a year or two behind me [at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, CA], but my impression was not unlike many others', I guess. As you know, Dexter was quite tall, and he talked slowly, moved slowly, always had a big, beautiful smile on his face. Due to the fact that he was a little younger than me and his musical training started undoubtedly a little later in his life than some of the rest of us— He had all of the soul and dedication and feeling and total commitment to jazz that a person could have, but his training was a little late, so he was what we might call second-string. But when it came to sincerity, he was totally committed. And his playing always reflected his bodily actions in a sense. Even today, when you listen to his records, it's always laid-back just a little bit, as though, "Look, I'm not in a hurry. I'm going to say what I want to say, how I want to say it, and nobody can rush me." But, you know, Dexter loved this thing so much that it was his life. If you love anything, you just live it, sleep it, and eat it. And it seems to me that I've heard Marshal say that Dexter told him once, as a very young man—Marshal [Royal] said that Dexter's ambition was to become a junkie. He was so committed to music—well, jazz music—and he felt that the epitome of being what he wanted was to be a junkie musician. In other words, I guess he felt that the dope was going to help him be a more completely formed musician. And Dexter apparently experimented a little too much with narcotics.”

- Jack Kelson [multi-reed artist aka Jackie Kelso], oral interview in Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles

“My enthusiasm for Gordon's playing on this LP knows very few bounds. It is not enough to say that he plays as well as he ever did, for he plays better and on some tracks shows a sustained emotional cohesion and directness that is rare. …

I take deep pleasure in the periodic rediscovery that players like Jack Teagarden, Emmett Berry, Pee Wee Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster (I am not naming enough of them) are still committed and creative jazz musicians. I take the same kind of pleasure in hearing Dexter Gordon on this LP.”

- Martin Williams, Downbeat review of Doin’ Alright

Recorded in 1961 and 1962, but not released until 1980, Landslide [LT-1051/CD TOCJ-50289] is the last of the three Blue Note recordings belately issued following Dexter Gordon’s 1961-1965 association with the label.

Perhaps not as well known as the above cited Martin Williams or the often recognized Ira Gitler, Nat Hentoff and Leonard Feather, Robert Palmer has long been a favorite of mine among Jazz critics for his educational and informative commentaries. After reading them, I always come away having learned something new about the music and its makers.

Aa a case in point, “storytelling” is commonly used as a reference point regarding Jazz soloing, but rarely is it explained, if it is explained at all, as well as Mr. Palmer’s description of it in the following insert notes to Landslide.

“Dexter Gordon is a weaver of spells and a teller of tales. He begins weaving his spell even before he's played a note, with his radiant, room lighting smile, his velvety speaking voice and the sheer magnetism of his presence.

In interviews, he’s often stressed his interest in musical storytelling He once explained his infatuation with the playing of Lester Young by asserting that "Pres was the first to tell a story on the horn” and of the trumpeter Roy Eldridge he remarked. "I used to got the same thing listening to Roy as I did

listening to Lester - the same ‘story' feeling."

"Telling a story" is such a cliche of "jazz talk" that one rarely thinks about what it really means On one level, it's a survival of an altitude common in blues, in which the guitar or harmonica often “talk back to" the singer, or answer his vocal lines, and that attitude in turn is a survival of the close connections between music and speech found in many African cultures. 

Among the many African peoples who speak pitch-tone languages, a musical phrase may literally tell a story, it may have a verbal meaning, which most [native] listeners can easily decipher in its pitch configuration. There’s a great deal of this marvelous tale-telling quality in Dexter Gordon’s playing. He’s an unusually expressive saxophonist and often he quotes the lyrics to a standard before improvising on it, drawing an explicit connection between the import of the words and how he will shape and develop his musical ideas.

Jazz improvising is a “language” in another equally interesting sense. A musician who develops his art in the way Dexter did - studying harmony and theory initially, picking up pointers from older musicians while serving an apprenticeship during big band section work, listening to the idioms recorded masterpieces and studying their details and construction - eventually creates his own individual style out of these diverse influences and experiences.

But the original influences are never entirely subsumed in an individual’s particular stylistic synthesis. A musician will retain phrases, personal timbers, and even entire solos associated with the many players he has listened to somewhere in the recesses of his memory, just as he retains the melodies and chordal layouts of a number of standard tunes and jazz compositions. In the course of an improvisation, which is a kind of spontaneous composition using a prearranged framework, the musician will draw on the information he has filed away in his memory bank. When the listener “hears the influence of” another player, what he’s actually hearing are either ideas found in the work of the other player or the improviser’s personal but still recognizable transformation of those ideas. In this sense, a superior, seasoned jazz improviser “tells a story” every time he solos, a story of the music’s rich traditions and of his own encounters with the bearers of these traditions.

There’s an interesting example of this aspect of Dexter’s story telling on “Love Locked Out,” the second of seven previously unreleased performances on this welcome new album. Dexter has never been thought of as a Coleman Hawkins disciple. He himself says that he loved Lester Young's playing more than that of any other tenor saxophonist, and of course his style was shaped further by Charlie Parker and the advent of bebop; he was the first really authoritative tenor stylist. But as we’ve noted a Jazz musician absorbs something from just about everything he hears, and like any other young saxophonist of his era Gordon listened carefully to Coleman Hawkins the undisputed tenor boss before Lester Young and a major architect of jazz ballad playing. Hawk's way with a ballad entailed various combinations of warm melodic exposition with arpeggiated playing; he would '”spread" a chord by stating its notes in sequence, almost as one might do when practicing an instrumental exercise. In his ballad performance "Love Locked Out", Dexter begins with a very straightforward melodic exposition, employing a plaintive, veiled sound, and then, as he begins to develop the melody, he works his way through a succession of arpeggiated phrases clearly acknowledging Hawkins’ contribution to ballad playing and to his own evolution.

I’ve emphasized this aspect of Dexter Gordon’s music because Landslide, drawn from three different 1961-62 sessions, gives a particularly good account of it. When Dexter is at work, he seems to access the material in his memory bank very directly, so that his playing reflects with unusual honesty the mood he’s in at the moment. I’ve heard him, for example, quote a single fragment - “Here Comes The Bride,” say - two or three times in the course of a single evening, and return the following night to find him in a very different frame of mind. For this reason, Dexter Gordon albums drawn from a single session tend to have a unity of mood, to present their own distinct perspective on the Gordon style. This album has more variety. Gordon is caught on three different days, telling different kinds of stories.

The early sixties must have been an uneven period for Gordon emotionally. After establishing himself as a modern master in New York during the forties, he spent much of the fifties back in his native California, where he had to overcome both a drug habit and the indifference of a jazz public that was preoccupied with the so-called “cool school.”

He returned to New York in the early sixties to record some of the finest albums of his career for Blue Note. Landslide, written by Dexter with fellow tenor saxophonist Harold Land in mind, is an unreleased tune cut at the second session of these albums: Dexter Calling. Making these albums, after having recorded very sporadically for a decade, must have been extremely satisfying, and in concert and at occasional night club appearances, Dexter was very warmly received. But the cabaret card law, which forced entertainers working in places that served liquor to apply for cards and routinely denied cards to anyone who had been in trouble with the law, especially on drug-related charges, kept Dexter from working steadily. In the study of Gordon included in Jazz Masters of the Forties, Ira Gitler suggests that Dexter’s failure to obtain a cabaret card was one of the main reasons he left for Europe later in 1962 and decided to stay there.

After the exuberant, hard-toned tenor solo on Landslide, the saxophonist’s work on the next three numbers sounds somewhat subdued. In part this difference can be ascribed to the difference in the accompanying groups. Landslide features the extroverted rhythm section of Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. On Love Locked Out, You Said It and Serenade in Blue, Willie Bobo, better know as a conga player, is on trap drums; Bobo also plays traps on Blue Note Sessions by Grant Green and the much underrated tenor saxophonist like Ike Quebec during this period [Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions, too.] Sir Charles Thompson [pianist], who now lives and works in Switzerland, had appeared on several Blue Note Sessions during the forties and returned to the studio to record for the label in a 1959 Ike Quebec date. Together with bassist Al Lucas, Bobo and Thompson provided spare backing on this date, and on the two ballads played gently and sadly, with deep feeling.

You Said It, a Tommy Turrentine composition recorded several months later by the trumpeter’s brother Stanley Turrentine and available on Jubilee Shouts [Blue Note BN LA 883], is more “up.” Dexter’s solo begins with tumbling strains that cascade downward, pulling at times against the forward push of the rhythm, and then opens out into expansive, intelligent eight-note patterns. The tune’s composer, making his only appearance of the set, solos briefly and Thompson’s solo includes reminders of both Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.

Phill Joe Jones is back on drums, the estimable Sonny Clark is the pianist and Ron Carter’s bass provides a big, hard bottom. Dave Burns, the trumpeter, has been featured on three, earlier Blue Note sessions - James Moody 1948, George Wallkington 1954, Leo Parker in 1961. A veteran of the early Dizzy Gillespie big bands, he is an individual, assured player and this date provides a welcome chance to hear him improvise at some length.

The material is varied and cleverly arranged, Dexter plays with a tougher tone and a more aggressive attack than on the previous session. Blue Gardenia sounds like a small band version of a big band arrangement, with its harmonized verses and unison bridge. 

Six Bits Jones is in 6/8, although the way Philly accents it makes it sound almost like a straight waltz at times.

Here Dexter echoes Burns’ theme statements of the minor key melody in chase fashion before jumping into the first solo, one of the best of the album. The way he cuts across the bar lines, building his improvisation out of chunky phrases of unequal lengths and making use of his lower buzz-saw register, is a delight.

Second Balcony Jump was recorded by Dexter again two months after this session and issued on his classic Go [Blue Note BST 84112]. But this version doesn’t take a back seat to the later one. Dexter’s sound is scorching, and he swaggers through his solos, scattering blues riffs, downturned inflections, jagged runs, and bottom-of-the-horn honks. Yeah! Here Dexter isn’t just telling a story, he’s preaching it, weaving that almost mystical spell of his. This performance alone is worth the price of admission.

It’s our great good fortune that Dexter decided to return from Europe, after a decade in exile, so that we could hear more like this.”

- Robert Palmer

Dan Morgenstern Sessions Notes from the Boxed Set Booklet -

(B) MAY 9,1961

LANDSLIDE, the session opener, was not issued until years later Dexter named this 32-bar original at the time of release because the line reminded him of Harold Land. It opens with three tenor choruses at a medium-up tempo. Drew's crisp, light touch is prevalent in a solo that includes some cleanly executed octave doubling, with prominent and typical Philly Joe rimshot accompaniment. Chambers takes a pizzicato solo that shows why he was in such demand in the studios; immaculate conception and beautiful sound. Dexter's concluding theme statement is authoritative, climaxing with a high note—as always, in tune.

(C) MAY 5,1962

Almost a year has passed. The supporting cast assembled here for Dexter is somewhat odd, and the session didn't yield enough material for an album; the three acceptable tunes were shelved and did not see the light of day until 1980. They proved worth waiting for, after all. Trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, born in Pittsburgh in 1928, is the oldest brother of tenorman Stanley. He hit the road with Snookum Russell's territory band in 1 945, graduated to Benny Carter a year later, and spent two years with trumpeter George Hudson's St. Louis-based outfit. His big-band days over, he joined Earl Bostic, then emerged with Charles Mingus in 1956, and worked with Max Roach and Lou Donaldson. His recording career peaked around the time of this date. Pianist Sir Charles Thompson, born in Springfield, Ohio in 1918, started on violin, turned piano pro at 17, toured with territory bands, and came to California in 1940, where he hooked up (and recorded) with Lionel Hampton. In New York, he was in Lee and Lester Young's band on 52nd Street, where he joined Coleman Hawkins for a round-trip to the west coast; back in the Apple, in 1945, he presided over a record date that included Charlie Parker and a young Dexter Gordon. He then hooked up with Illinois Jacquet, did frequent gigs as a soloist, recorded for his fan John Hammond at Vanguard and Columbia, and had recently returned from a European tour with Buck Clayton at the time of this session. Bassist Al Lucas, born in Windsor, Ontario in 1916, spent most of the '30s touring with the Sunset Royals, then worked in New York with Coleman Hawkins, Stuff Smith, Mary Lou Williams, Eddie Heywood, Ellington (briefly), Erroll Garner and Jacquet before settling into studio work. (He'd appeared on Blue Note with James P. Johnson.) Lucas died in 1983. Drummer Willie Bobo was born into music as Machito's band boy, played with Perez Prado and Tito Puente and Mary Lou Williams (who named him Bobo) and did long stints with Cal Tjader and Herbie Mann before leading his own groups from 1963 until his death 20 years later.

SERENADE IN BLUE, from the prolific pen of Harry Warren, was introduced by Glenn Miller's band in the 1942 film "Orchestra Wives." This is the tender Dexter, but even at his most gentle, there's a firmness to his phrasing that keeps his ballads from becoming somnolent. This tune has a particular!!/ well-wrought bridge that is stunningly reshaped by Dex in his second chorus, where he also goes way low during the first four bars. He had remarkable range—remarkable for the fullness and accuracy of both his top and bottom notes. The extended ending is lovely, as is this entire all-Gordon performance.

YOU SAID IT is by Tommy Turrentine, in minor, and sounds a bit like the title repeated three times. After the unison head, Dexter dips into low range; his solo is phrased more tightly than usual, making little use of space. The composer expresses nice ideas from a Fats KD Brownie bag, slightly shaky in execution, and Sir Charles pares things down, in his epigrammatic be-bop-Basie style. Bobo's accents sometimes reveal his Latin ancestry.

LOVE LOCKED OUT is a great 1933 Ray Noble tune—Dexter's reservoir of good songs was deep. Throughout this performance, he uses his sound and range with impressive imagination—what a craftsman he was, and what care he took with every note's shape and duration and color. He opens in a warm and pensive mood, well backed by Lucas, as he unfolds the melody, then embellishes it with arpeggios. Sir Charles takes the second bridge, showing that he can do a Teddy Wilson, and when Dexter returns, he comes close to singing the melody, going way up, with that great control and sound. Another ballad masterpiece.

(E) JUNE 25,1962

Except for Philly Joe Jones, all new faces surround Dexter here, but this is another session that failed to meet Alfred Lion's expectations and remained shelved for almost 20 years. Trumpeter Dave Burns, born in New Jersey in 1924, was thoroughly schooled in music before joining the Savoy Sultans in 1941 and leading a band in the U.S. Army. Upon discharge in 1946 he became a member of Dizzy Gillespie's big band, spent some rather anonymous time with Ellington, and was featured with James Moody's fine little band from 1952 to 1957. At the time of this date, he was with the Billy Mitchell-Al Grey group. Pianist Sonny Clark, born in 1931 in a small Pennsylvania town, started on piano at four and added bass and vibes while in high school in Pittsburgh. His professional career got under way in California in 1951, where he worked with Wardell Gray, Vido Musso, Oscar Pettiford, and Buddy Defranco (1953-56), with whom he visited Europe. He came to New York with Dinah Washington in 1957 and formed his own trio, also recording prolifically. He had less than seven months to live after this date. Ron Carter, the baby of this band, was born in 1937 in Ferndale, Michigan, took up cello at ten, attended Cass Tech in Detroit, where he took up bass, played his first professional gigs in 1955, and graduated from the Eastman School of Music in 1959, the year he joined Chico Hamilton. Work and recordings with Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard and Mal Waldron preceded his 1963 hiring by Miles Davis.

BLUE GARDENIA, the theme from the eponymous 1953 film, written by Bob Russell and Lester Lee, was put on the map by Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington. Dexter and company take it above the customary ballad tempo — a Basie-like mid tempo — and the arrangement reshapes the bridge. Philly Joe's accents add much to the total effect. Dexter starts his solo down low and phrases Bird-like on the last eight of the first chorus, then spaces his phrases out as the rhythm section settles into a backbeat feel. He enlists a million-dollar baby to launch the bridge. Burns is also relaxed, offering some tasty, laid-back phrasing without resorting to double-timing. Clark tips his cap to the melody at first, then goes for himself, and young Ron takes a half chorus before the ensemble recaps the arranged bridge and takes us home.

SECOND BALCONY JUMP, by trombonist-arranger Gerald Valentine, was launched in Earl Hines' 1942 band; Billy Eckstine took it (and Valentine) along when he left Fatha to go out on his own, and it was in the Eckstine band that young Dexter became fond of this riff-based number; the title refers to the Apollo Theatre's lowest-priced and most responsive section. The tempo's nice — not too fast and Dexter's in a happy mood and on a quoting kick. The last eight of his second chorus are special, and on the third, he's thinking about Lester Young. Burns proves himself a subtle thinker on his two-chorus solo, Philly is right there with him. The drummer's almost too responsive to Clark, who should have gotten more than one chorus to play. Drum fills and a drum bridge feature in the closing segments.

SIX BITS JONES is by the gifted arranger-composer Onzy Matthews, with whom Dexter was acquainted in California. Ifs in 6/8. Dexter echoes Burns' lead, then starts his solo with an incisive repeated phrase (as always, he responds to the minor mode) and builds from there. Burns joins him for the handover, then solos well (but with low chops) in a Chet Baker mold. Clark makes the most of his single chorus, painting with dark hues, and Philly Joe was listening. A horn interlude leads back to the theme; this time, Dexter plays a written counterline. A call-and-response routine fades out the piece.


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