How ironic that concert performance, once the definition of musical ephemerality, has become the richest vein to mine for vintage jazz gold. Working with producer Michael Cuscuna, Elemental has unearthed a cannily matched pair of albums recorded (mostly) in Japan that offer fresh sounds from two musically related giants.
Dexter Gordon’s Tokyo 1975 catches the tenor titan the year before his triumphant return to the American jazz scene with the Homecoming album. For most of this recording, he’s working with the same Kenny Drew-led trio that backed him on The Apartment, with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums, but their playing at Yubin Chokin Hall is far less restrained than in the studio. For instance, NHØP’s line during the head of “The Days of Wine and Roses” is less an accompaniment than a sort of counter-solo, and it’s no less busy than Drew’s cascading chords and the churning polyrhythms Heath lays down.
Gordon easily holds his own—he takes a commanding eight choruses on the album-opening “Fried Bananas”—but he makes his point not through virtuosity but sheer force of personality. His hallmarks, a strong sense of swing and a fondness for dropping quotes into his solos, are very much in evidence, but Tokyo boasts the added pleasure of letting us hear him not only play but also sing the blues in a rollicking run through Billy Eckstine’s “Jelly, Jelly” (which, for some reason, gets an extra “Jelly” in the credits). There are two bonus tracks, a spritely rendering of “Rhythm-a-Ning” with Drew’s trio in Denmark (Espen Rud replaces Heath for that) and an elegiac, slightly hammy read of “Old Folks” with the Homecoming band, recorded in New Haven six months after that album was cut.
Woody Shaw, who was part of the Homecoming band, sits out on “Old Folks,” but we do hear the trumpeter’s voice at the end of the track (“Take a bow, Dexter!”), and that seems as apt a segue as any to Shaw’s Tokyo ’81. Apparently recorded for broadcast, it features Shaw’s last and perhaps best working band, with Steve Turre on trombone, pianist Mulgrew Miller, Stafford James on bass, and drummer Tony Reedus. What’s striking is that even though the solos present a distinct set of musical personalities (James’ arco solo on “Rosewood” is particularly awesome), the overall sound is very much that of a writer’s band. Apart from “’Round Midnight,” the tunes are all ingeniously structured, carefully arranged originals, and ensemble playing is almost orchestral in its sense of color and dynamics.
As such, there’s rarely anything showy about the playing; instead, even the most fiery passages have an air of delicacy to them, as if every note were a matter of careful choice. Whether through the driving, post-bop phrasing of Shaw’s solo on “Apex” or Mulgrew Miller’s koto-like introduction to “Song of Songs,” each track offers a wealth of melodic detail and improvisational brilliance.
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