COMPOSERS: Dexter Gordon
LABELS: Blue Note
ALBUM TITLE: Jazz Starter Collection
PERFORMER: Dexter Gordon
CATALOGUE NO: 4987 942
Because he stood well over six feet, Dexter Gordon was known as ‘Long Tall Dexter’. But the nickname might also have referred to the influence he cast over young tenor players in the 1940s and ’50s: Gordon’s mix of Lester Young’s lithe invention and Coleman Hawkins’s harmonic depth, leavened with Charlie Parker’s brilliance, inspired a generation of saxophonists, including John Coltrane.
He started early. When he joined Lionel Hampton’s band in 1940 he was just 17, and already a roguish charmer. Once, late for a gig, he simply walked on stage blowing when his solo spot came, bringing the house down. He quickly became a bebop star, playing with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and, from 1947-52, established a tenor duo with Wardell Gray, performing celebrated saxophone battles.
But that partnership, and Gordon’s immediate professional prospects, came to an end with his imprisonment on drugs charges, from 1952-54. A second conviction kept him inside from 1956-60. That this huge upheaval in his career didn’t diminish his talent was revealed in a series of prime recordings, such as Go! from 1962. But no sooner had it appeared than Gordon upped stakes for Europe, where he remained until 1976. His subsequent return to America was a triumph, a rediscovery of a major jazzman at a time when jazz itself was at a low ebb. Gordon became a hero all over again, though his period in the limelight was curtailed by ill health.
Yet he made one final, remarkable comeback as a movie star, playing the lead in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film Round Midnight. Gordon’s character could have been himself, an ageing tenor man battling the demons of the jazz life, and the showman-saxophonist won a nomination for an Academy Award as best actor, in a last bow before his death in 1990.
Though Gordon’s career may be the stuff of lurid popular legend, its enduring substance shines through albums like Go!,/i>. It was the tenorist’s favourite among his records, brimming with confidence, pleasure, and the sheer prodigality of his gifts, in an array of moods. Here are the huge sounds – shifting from r‘n’b honk to sinewy grace – the lines remoulding the beat and the chords, above all the creative momentum, shaping a solo in ways you could never have predicted with wit and irresistible swing. And his accompanying trio are peerless. As Dexter himself put it, Go! is a timeless example of what jazz people mean when they talk about somebody ‘saying something’.