Wednesday Jun 26

Dexter Gordon: Making a buck in Chicago

This is another set of previously unreleased performances by a major jazz artist, in this case seminal bop tenor sax star Dexter Gordon. It's pretty much typical of this sort of production. The music was recorded in performance, not originally intended for release as a permanent example of the artist's work, but for better or worse, here it is on a nearly indestructible CD.

Let's talk first about the better parts. One, obviously, is Gordon himself. He single-handedly defined the modernist approach to the tenor sax and has been identified as an important influence on John Coltrane. Then there's Gordon's front line partner for this occasion, trumpeter Joe Newman. His gritty interpretation of "Ode to Billy Jo" and his spirited playing on many other tracks provide a welcome balance to Gordon's occasional diffidence.

But the disc's best attribute by far is its astonishingly live sound. Too often such in-performance "discoveries" display incompetent sonics, but this one is absolutely transporting. It makes you believe that you're in the physical presence of Gordon, Newman, and crew rather than listening to a two-decade old recording.

Unfortunately the abrupt fades that prematurely terminate half of the tracks destroy the you-are-there impression. The program lists "Body and Soul" as having parts one and two, for instance, as in the old days of three-minutes-per-side 78s and 45s. What you'll hear is a fade out in the middle of Gordon's solo to end part one and a fade in with Gordon still soloing to start part two, and that part in turn fading out before the performance of the song is over.

It's unsettling, to say the least and "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise" and "The Shadow of Your Smile" are similarly truncated.

Musically, Gordon's performances reflect the fact that they were part of an evening's work. His job that night wasn't playing for the ages but for the audience there assembled, so he indulged heavily in quotations from other tunes to assemble pre-fab solos and there are more than a few poorly chosen notes--to put it kindly. Still, rabid Gordon fans (I admit that I'm not one of them) will want this since it gives a very intimate and accurate glimpse of the man playing in a relaxed club setting.

An interesting question is, what club? The notes say it was "the world famous Jazz Workshop in Chicago." I remembered no such venue in the Windy City so I phoned the well-informed staff at Chicago's Jazz Record Centre. They, too, recalled no club of that name existing in their town. Most likely Gordon and Newman appeared at "the famous Jazz Showcase in Chicago." I expect we can believe the 1979 date, but as is common with poorly researched and haphazardly assembled "discovery" CDs, one can never be sure.