Updated: Dec 1, 2021
Please note: Every mention of a song or album in this article contains a link to its Spotify page. If you prefer to use YouTube, click here to jump to the list at the bottom of the page.
Welcome to the first instalment of Jazzcord's "guide to" series, where we will be featuring regular run-downs of both iconic and unsung characters in jazz!
Legendary tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon was a warm, personable, and charming personality, and he reflected this authentically in his playing like no other. His melodic and horizontal approach to soloing makes him a highly accessible musician, grounded in the romantic ethos that "When you know the lyrics to a tune, you have some kind of insight as to its composition. If you don't understand what it's about, you're depriving yourself of being really able to communicate this poem."
Accessible though he may be, his improvisation is highly unrestricted. Dexter's background in bebop enabled him to craft harmonically intricate phrases over famous changes (later often made famous by himself), in a way which immediately made any contemporary audience warm to him. You can see this approach in action here:
Characterised by naturally flowing lines and a relaxed (but extremely consistent) interpretation of the beat, Long Tall Dexter's sound is instantly recognisable- above all by his famously warm, wide tone, and a volume befitting of his 6'6" frame.
In a juxtaposition to his mechanical expertise in bebop, Dexter's romanticism also found him putting much time and effort into mastering the art of the ballad. That is: telling a story through music.
Of course, this storytelling supplements all of Dexter's playing, but it really shines through on the slower paced love songs he adored. Some examples are handily compiled in Ballads, though I'd also like to particularly draw attention to one rendition of In a Sentimental Mood- a lesser known outing on the soprano saxophone, which he plays just as beautifully.
In my own attempts to emulate Dexter's sound, I've found an abstract, attitude based approach to pay far more dividends than any technical prescription. For the tenor saxophonists among you looking to do the same, I recommend trying to "fill the room" with your horn in the same way an edgier player may try to "pierce the walls". Dexter's sound is never unfocussed, but he consciously refrains from the more single-minded directness which came to distinguish artists like Michael Brecker.
For many, Dexter's musicianship culminates most perfectly in his classic blue note recordings. Go! is undoubtedly the most renowned, but A Swingin' Affair, Doin' Allright, Clubhouse, and Dexter Calling all have brilliant uniquenesses which distinguish them from each other in some important way. For me, this list is the ultimate Dexter Gordon starter pack: it has everything from bebop to bossa to hard-bop. You cannot go wrong with these albums.
Later in life, Dexter Gordon was also demonstrably proficient at non-musical performance, evident from his starring role in the 1986 film Round Midnight by Bertrand Tavernier about fictional saxophonist Dale Turner. Dexter's widow, Maxine Gordon, was given a brilliant story to tell following his Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
While Round Midnight is based on the composite story of musicians Lester Young (a personal influence on Dexter) and Bud Powell, Dexter's life also shares many similarities with the arc of Dale Turner. Following his recovery from heroin addiction (marked by The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon in 1960), Dexter moved to Europe and recorded prolifically in Copenhagen for the following 14 years before eventually returning to the USA.
This period in Europe provided a wealth of recordings (Our Man in Paris, the Swiss Nights series, Fried Bananas, A Day in Copenhagen, The Squirrel, etc.) and several fruitful musical partnerships. Dexter himself said he experienced less racism in Europe than in the USA, and encountered more cultural enthusiasm and respect for jazz at the time.
Dexter's legacy lives on in near enough every tenor player around, whether directly or indirectly, thanks to his trailblazing as bebop's first tenor saxophonist. He came to help define what it meant to play bebop tenor, and his influence cannot be overstated.
YouTube links to all albums/songs mentioned in this article:
Fried Bananas (Title track only)