Gerd Dudek is the best tenor saxophonist you've never heard of. And incredibly, that's a statement that could have been made 10 or 20 years ago. A central reason is that, despite getting in on the ground floor of European free music as a member of trumpeter Manfred Schoof's pivotal mid-'60s quintet and the mighty Globe Unity Orchestra (GUO), and subsequently being a mainstay of prominent units such as European Jazz Ensemble (EJE) and Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, Dudek has never led his own date, a grievous omission only now corrected by 'smatter.
Evan Parker, Dudek's GUO section mate and Psi honcho, produced this '98 London studio date with the blue-chip British rhythm section of guitarist John Parricelli, bassist Chris Laurence and EJE drummer Tony Levin, spanning "Body and Soul" and three elegantly contoured Kenny Wheeler compositions. Separate and apart from the justice served by its release, the results are immensely satisfying.
From his first note, it is obvious that Dudek has the gravitas that eludes all but a handful of tenor players from a given generation. His frank, unforced sound conveys the compounding of worldliness and world-weariness that comes with middle age. That's why Wheeler's tunes are a perfect fit for Dudek, as they are built on unassuming, kernellike phrases and blind-siding harmonic resolutions that transform casual comment into gestalt. They play into two of Dudek's core strengths: an economy of thought and a precision in emotional projection, even in his most syntactically elaborate flourishes. Additionally, the sequence of the ruminative "Phrase Three," the love-letterlike "Ma Bel" and the low blue flame of the title piece has an arc that reinforces the meshing of Dudek's improvisational lexicon with Wheeler's compositional counterpart.
For his next feat, Dudek extracts the stallion from the original tenor war-horse, "Body and Soul." Bracketing his briskly paced reading of the tune on this 17-minute tour de force are freely improvised passages where Dudek fans primal flames. Particularly in the sterling cadenza that bridges his romp through the changes and the climatic opening of the skies, Dudek's streaming lines and hoarse cries impressively meld the modernist imperative for complexity with postmodernist fire and brimstone. It would be a mistake, however, to place Dudek in the deconstructivist camp, as the saxophonist has old-school blues and bop-based blowing in his bones as well, evidenced by his smoking take on George Coleman's "By George."
Dudek is a fine soprano player as well; unfortunately, only a delicately soaring, drummerless reading of Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks" supports the claim. Hopefully, the follow-up will feature more of his straight horn.