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Dexter Gordon: The Complete Prestige Recordings

Like most artists, Dexter Gordon broke out of the gate full of youthful fire, hit full stride in his 30s and 40s, and slowly decelerated thereafter. The accepted wisdom is that his greatest dates were made for Blue Note during the ’60s, and certainly he never sounded better than on Dexter Calling and Doin’ Allright. The first entry in Gordon’s discography is from 1941, when he was 18, and the last is in 1987. In between he was officially recorded more than 160 times, about half of which were made in the ’70s and ’80s-and during the crucial decade of the ’50s he hardly recorded at all. This means that a vast portion of Gordon’s records catch him in cruise control essentially, while relatively few present him at his peak.

This Prestige collection contains a track from 1950, a session recorded in ’60, another from ’65, and 11 made between ’69 and ’73. The music ranges from fantastic to fairly good, and gathering it all together gives us a chance to reevaluate recordings that can get lost in the shuffle when a discography is so large.

Gordon made his name doing tenor battles with other L.A. hotshot tenors in the ’40s, so it seems appropriate that this collection opens with a 10-minute jam with Wardell Gray on Denzil Best’s “Move.” The two tenors are joined by altoist Sonny Criss and trumpeter Clark Terry for this live performance. It’s typical flag-waving stuff, all good fun and appropriate here as an indicator of the musical milieu in which Gordon matured, but it’s an open question whether he was ever really at his best in this setting, and the answer of each listener will go a ways toward determining the desirability of this box. For my part I find Terry to be more interesting than any of the saxophonists, but the brash energy of “Move” saves it, something that can’t be said of some of the later live material.

After his lost years, the saxophonist returned to the recording fray with 1960’s The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon at the helm of a sextet alongside two little known hornmen, trumpeter Martin Banks and trombonist Richard Boone. This is an underrated session, notable for worthwhile contributions by these lesser lights, nice work by pianist Dolo Coker and drummer Larance Marable, and especially for the fine form displayed by the leader. The language spoken is much more obviously bebop than anything Gordon would record thereafter, and there’s a happy, swinging feeling that’s quite engaging. Next up, from 1965, is Booker Ervin’s Setting the Pace. Some of the reservations about extended blowing cited above might be expected to apply to the two 20-minute marathons here, but Ervin sounds so pleased to be in harness with his early idol that the music rises well above jam session norms. Pianist Jaki Byard does his usual unusual thing, utterly brilliant one minute and the next sounding as if he’s listening to another band on headphones. Drummer Alan Dawson shows how great he really could be, ditto Ron Carter back when he was lean and mean. The fact that chaos sometimes threatens helps keep a nice edge.

The 1969 sessions that produced The Tower of Power! and More Power! feature pianist Barry Harris, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Tootie Heath, with James Moody added on tenor for a few tracks. Even Ted Panken, an annotator who clearly believes that accentuating the positive is part of his job description, can’t find anything nice to say about Moody’s work here-and I won’t even try. Gordon sounds excellent, but something about the rhythm section work just fails to inspire, and this is a problem that repeats itself through the remainder of this collection. It’s not a question of the individual players but of the overall effect of feeling too pat.

The May 1969 live recordings from the Left Bank in Baltimore feature pianist Bobby Timmons, bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Percy Brice, and Gordon gets off plenty of great blowing on these lengthy performances. The sound isn’t the best, and the rhythm team isn’t as consistent as one might wish, but as long as you stay focused on the leader, everything else seems unimportant. Another live session from the following year, Dexter Gordon With Junior Mance at Montreux, includes bassist Martin Rivera and drummer Oliver Jackson. Once again the group chemistry doesn’t really happen, though there’s still a lot to like.

My favorite of the ’70s dates is The Panther! Tommy Flanagan’s beautiful soloing and picture-perfect comping lifts everything, Gordon sounds happy and relaxed, and bassist Larry Ridley and drummer Alan Dawson also deserve credit. Gordon might go further out on some of the other sessions, but the group feeling on The Panther! makes it special. The Chase! is an all but inevitable reunion with Gene Ammons, who had staged many a battle with Gordon in the early days. It was recorded during two Chicago appearances on July 26, 1970, but given how much they’ve recorded it’s hard to find anything special about this stuff.

The Jumpin’ Blues gets things back on track. This happy, swinging affair features pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Roy Brooks. Not that this is a seamless fit, with Gordon decidedly behind-the-beat (as usual) over a section that tends to push it. Some listeners don’t like this kind of tension, but I find it delicious. Kelly didn’t have much gas left in his tank at this point, but he coasts along like the Cadillac he was, and Gordon displays the form that won him the Down Beat critic’s poll in 1971. The reunion with Freddie Hubbard that produced Regeneration doesn’t bear comparison with their wonderful ’61 session, Doin’ Allright; the trumpeter had lost his youthful edge, and the rhythm section is average. The same is true of the session that produced most of Tangerine, though trumpeter Thad Jones turns in some nice work.

The proof that group chemistry really counts can be heard on the live session Blues a la Suisse that sounds much better than it should, given that Hampton Hawes and Bob Cranshaw play electric piano and bass, respectively. If all the music in this box set would lock in as well as tracks like Gordon, Hawes and Cranshaw’s “Gingerbread Boy,” this box would be essential. As it is, it’s a good way to fill in gaps, with good notes and generous playing time.

Originally Published