Dexter Gordon ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 4/5

dexter-gordonFlash back to the very beginning of the 1960s and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon was just emerging from a near decade of drug addiction that had not only severely interrupted his career, but seriously threatened to sabotage it permanently. However, he found the presence of mind to kick the habit and re-commence a new career, first tentatively with Prestige, but then embarking upon a highly productive tenure at the prestigious Blue Note label that resurrected his career and launched him for the next twenty-five years or so.
This latest four album set from Avid follows on chronologically from a previous ‘Three albums plus’ that includes the excellent and aptly titled, ‘Resurgence’ for Prestige and the superb, ‘Dexter blows hot and cold’, that cemented his early career reputation. The new pairing of two albums per CD starts with the May 1961 recording of ‘Doin’ Alright’. Here Gordon was surrounded by some of the emerging young Turks of the New York scene, with ace trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, the trusted blues-inflected grooves of pianist Horace Parlan, plus a solid rhythm section rounded off by bassist George Tucker and drummer Al Harewood. Given that Harewood passed away as recently as March 2014, this album serves as a testimony to his contribution, not only to the Blue Note label for whom he regularly contributed, but to jazz in general. One of the unsung heroes. Among the standards and new compositions on offer, the uptempo ‘Society Red’ stands out, with a marked penchant for warm, reflective ballads demonstrated on ‘You’ve changed’ and ‘I was doing all right’. The second Blue Note album, recorded a mere three days later, does not have the same polished feel to its predecessor and that is a pity because the rhythm section is first class with Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joes Jones on drums. Something does not quite gel and it may simply be that the group were thrust together a little too hastily and just needed a little more time together. Whatever the case, there is still much to admire on pieces such as ‘The end of a love affair’ and ‘Clear the Dex’ (pun fully intended), while the optimistic ‘Smile’ hinted at the leader rapidly recovering his health and presence of mind.

If CD 1 sets the scene for Gordon’s mid-period career, then the cherry on the cake are the two albums from 1962 that remain as definitive examples of Dexter’s craft. ‘Go and ‘Swinging Affair’ should not be separated since they represent the ying and yang of the tenor sound of the leader. If ‘Go’ is uniformly outstanding, ‘A Swinging Affair’ does contain the sublime ‘Soy Califa’ that testifies to Gordon’s abiding love of Latin rhythms. The former contains one of the leader’s strongest compositions in ‘Cheesecake’, while ‘Love for sale’ receives one of the most distinguished interpretations ever recorded. Stunning ballads are topped off by an emotionally drenched, ‘I’ll hang out my tears to dry’. For the latter album, ‘You stepped out of a dream’ repeats the classic ballad outlook whereas the emphatic ‘Mc Splivens’ ends proceedings on a high. If you do not already possess all four albums, then this is essential listening and if you have never heard any Dexter Gordon previously, then this is unquestionably the place to begin, then explore further.

Tim Stenhouse