the root cellar: dexter gordon – tones of a tenor

Just like that you are drifting on the clouds of cigarette smoke and you don’t remember being wet or tired or poor or even who you are – you just feel the notes in your bones and you are gone man, you are gone…”


by john pinamonti


Come on down the stairs into the hazy blue light of the cellar. Tonight we’ve turned it into the 5 Spot – an intimate basement club with a dozen or so tables spread out in front of a bandstand and a few bar stools around a small but well-stocked bar against the far wall. As you drop down in from the rainy night, you hear the warm full tones of a tenor saxophone. It starts to fill you and sweep you up as your reach the bottom of the stairs and as you sit down at one of the back tables, just like that you are drifting on the clouds of cigarette smoke and you don’t remember being wet or tired or poor or even who you are – you just feel the notes in your bones and you are gone man, you are gone…

Ok, so much for the Kerouac introduction! I was just trying to set the mood for this month’s review of some prime Blue Note recordings by the late great Dexter Gordon and I thought that first paragraph might get you ready. The three albums we’ll investigate are:

Dexter Callin’
A Swingin’ Affair

These records capture the man at the height of his powers in 1961-62, after dealing with drug problems and jail time in the 50’s and just before he left America for his long residency in Europe in the fall of ‘62. Dexter, perhaps more than anyone else, was and is a pivotal link between pioneers of the saxophone such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Don Byas and innovators such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. ‘Trane was at the apex of his popularity when these records were made, and musicians had begun to assimilate what was implied by his albums Blue Train, Giant Steps and My Favorite Things, even as they were still assimilating the revolutionary ideas of Parker. Dexter was one of the seasoned pros at the time that was able to successfully combine all these influences into his own unique thing. Pat Metheny once said that everything he did, he did in terms of Charlie Parker. That is, Bird set the standard for improvising musicians, and it’s a standard that maintains and sustains them. For me, a lot of what I would like to do (and I ain’t even close, folks!) would be in terms of Dexter. What Dex did is sort of what John Irving has done with his fiction – he’s learned his craft, can create within a traditional form, but also manages to blaze new ground and take it all on to something fresh and new.
All of these albums feature a combination of original compositions and standards, with Dexter keeping one foot in the traditional jazzman-as-interpreter bag and one in the improviser-as-composer-bag. His supporting players are all stars themselves – Dexter Callin’ features Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones (of Miles Davis fame) on bass and drums, and Kenny Drew on piano. These are the same guys Coltrane used on Blue Train, and they really shine here. Go! and A Swingin’ Affair feature a different rhythm section of Sonny Clark, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins on piano, bass and drums, (Swingin’ was recorded two days after Go!, so it is really an extension of the Go! session) and they are just as solid and inventive as Drew & Co. My favorite track out of all three records is the first one on Go! – a Gordon original called Cheesecake, though his other originals, such as Soy Califa on Swingin’ and Soul Sister on Callin’, are fine, too. They all have cool rhythmic grooves and seem tailor-made both for Dexter and the respective bands. In particular, drummers Higgins and Jones really dig in and spur the melodic instruments on to some fine playing. I can safely say that there isn’t a bad track on any of these discs – they’re all as full and complete as Dexter’s tone.

If you haven’t really checked out any Blue Note recordings in general, Go! is the way to go, as it is not only one of the best Gordon albums but also one of the best in the vast Blue Note catalogue. They have recently put out some new issues called the Rudy Van Gelder (“RVG”) editions – remastered versions of the original albums, so make sure you look for this on the label when you buy your copy of Go!. Van Gelder had a simple but state-of-the-art studio at his home in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, right across the river from Manhattan, and he recorded the bulk of the formidable and immensely important Blue Note sessions there. His place provided a nice relaxed setting for the crème de la crème of Jazz players to lay down their historic recordings, many of which were done in the afternoon before club dates at night. Dexter in particular responded to these surroundings and the solid musicianship of his comrades (he was relatively new to the NY/East Coast scene, being a native of LA and a veteran of the thriving Central Ave. scene there in the ‘40’s and early ‘50s). You can tell he really digs not only the studio but also the enthusiasm and gusto with which his friends play.

Finally, if you really want to experience Dexter as a person as well as a musician, then go rent the movie ‘Round Midnight by Bertrand Tavernier. It is widely available (Dex was actually nominated for an Academy Award for it!), and it is a wonderful albeit sad tale of a ex-pat Jazzman in Paris. Based on the relationship of French graphic artist Francis Paudris and American Jazz great Bud Powell, it features some fine performances by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and Billy Higgins as well as Dexter’s mesmerizing playing and acting. His performance is based off of his own experiences but also of his observations and knowledge of Lester Young and other American players who spent time in Europe. It is touchingly filmed by Jazz fan Tavernier, and it will give you a good dose of Dex and leave you wanting to check out more of his music.

In the words of Lennie Niehaus, Dexter’s playing embodied “Grace and power, wit and emotion, harmonic acuity and melodic sweep” – do yourself a favor and get swept away by him for a while.

I thought I should mention a really great website where you can find lots of general info about all kinds of music. It’s called the All Music Guide. Being the music maven I am, I already know most of the stuff there, but you being the novice that you are might find it a useful reference tool. Check it out, do a few weeks of reading, and you might be able to keep up with all of Pointy’s pontificating!

If you are interested in Blue Note recordings by other artists, here are a few suggestions:

Lee MorganSidewinder
Cannonball AdderleySomethin’ Else
Art Blakey QuintetA Night At Birdland (Vol. 1, 2 or 3)
Herbie HancockMaiden Voyage
Sonny ClarkCool Struttin’
Horace SilverSong for My Father
Wayne ShorterSpeak No Evil


Next month… Elvis!


Originally published:
Issue Four
December 2000


John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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