Happy 100th birth anniversary (on 2/27) to absolutely one of the greatest tenor saxophonists who ever lived, Dexter Gordon. When I was a senior in high school, my friend Jimmy Greene loaned me two Dexter cassettes that blew my mind: the mid-60s Blue Note session Gettin’ Around and the mid-70s Steeplechase record Bouncin’ With Dex and I was just flabbergasted that the same person who was such an exemplar of fluency, inventiveness, and harmonic clarity on challenging up-tempo tunes could also play ballads with a potency unlike anything I’d ever heard . . . or indeed have heard since – sorry Miles, Bill, J.J., etc. – Dexter is my desert-island ballad player. While he could certainly be succinct, I love it when we can hear him stretch out, demonstrating the seemingly endless fount of ideas.
His career was so long and so vast that it’s both easier and harder to make a list – easier in the sense of natural “compartments,” harder in the sense of narrowing-down given the enormity and quality of his discography. I won’t give a Dexter bio here (those interested are encouraged to take to the interwebs or reference books for that), instead heading straight to 10 tracks I particularly love, in chronological order and with attention to covering as much ground as I reasonably can within those limitations.
1 ) “Long Tall Dexter” from Savoy recordings (reissued on various compilations) (1946)
While I really enjoy Dexter’s even-earlier work (especially his sides with Nat “King” Cole on piano), this is where I first hear the sheer authority and full early maturity of his soloing. His work is supported by the all-star support of Curly Russell and Max Roach and there are also flowing solos by piano legend Bud Powell and the lesser-known trumpet player Leonard Hawkins.
2 ) “You Can Depend On Me” from Daddy Plays the Horn (1955)
This burning track demonstrates Dexter’s relaxed mastery of fast tempos and is also a prime example of his work during his brief mid-1950s period between prison stints. The superlative West Coast tandem of Leroy Vinnegar and Larance Marable keep it cooking while Dexter and pianist Kenny Drew (who, upon his own repatriation to France and then Denmark, would go on to be a frequent European collaborator of Dex’s in the ‘60s and ‘70s) bring the fire.
3 ) “Society Red” from Doin’ Allright (1961)
The centerpiece of his first Blue Note session, this track shows just how nasty things get when Dexter plays the blues. I could have easily chosen his contributions to the iconic “Driftin’” or “Watermelon Man” from Herbie Hancock’s debut record a year later, but this one (also featuring fabulous solos by Freddie Hubbard and Horace Parlan) gives me the involuntary stank-face every time.
4 ) “Don’t Explain” from A Swinging Affair (1962)
You might be thinking “4 songs into this list and we’re only JUST getting our first ballad?” Well, yes, thank you for your patience. I could have chosen literally any of the many ballads from his Blue Note years, but this track (also featuring sensitive accompaniment and a short solo by pianist Sonny Clark) takes one of my favorite Billie Holiday songs and makes it (warning: sacrilege alert) equally potent to the vocal versions, adding the melodic masterpiece that is Dex’s solo.
5 ) “Billie’s Bounce” from Billie’s Bounce (1964)
This is among the first of the many European-recorded sessions Dexter led for the Steeplechase label between the mid-60s and mid-70s (mostly during his time living across the pond) with various combinations of great European jazz musicians and American expats. In this case he’s surrounded by a who’s who of European stalwarts in pianist Tete Montoliu, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (18 at the time of this session), and drummer Alex Riel, the former two of whom would go on to record this song with Gordon 11 years later on the aforementioned Bouncin’ With Dex.
6 ) “Manha de Carnival” from Gettin’ Around (1965)
When I was first devouring this album, this was the track that got the most rewinds-and-replays (sorry Jimmy, I hope the tape survived the ordeal!). The best-known song from the film Black Orpheus, this one is putty in Dexter’s hands (and embouchure, I suppose), essentially splitting the difference between lyrical balladry and the Latin music Dexter did so well. His solo here is one of his most lyrical, which is really saying something, and there are lovely solo contributions from vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and pianist Barry Harris as well.
7 ) “Body and Soul” from the Panther (1970)
This list needed something from the Prestige Records years, and I love this record, with Dexter and pianist Tommy Flanagan distinguishing themselves throughout. Meanwhile, there are quite a few recordings of him playing the most-recorded ballad in jazz, at least 4 of which are central to my own musical development. So with apologies to the versions on the next two albums on this list and the live recording from Keystone Korner, this is my choice. It’s utterly gorgeous and contains the basic component parts in all of those – walking the line between swinger and ballad, incorporation of John Coltrane’s harmonic reinvention of the song, and with an epic Dexter solo and an also-epic saxophone cadenza at the end.
8 ) “In Case You Haven’t Heard” from Homecoming (1976)
This album, recorded live at the Village Vanguard and symbolically marking Dex’s return stateside, was another early source of my own Dexter-studies, and the whole two-album set is remarkable. This is also perhaps the ultimate document of his collaboration with the visionary trumpeter/composer Woody Shaw, who contributes this challenging composition. Woody and pianist Ronnie Mathews sound great, and the rhythm section, featuring bassist Stafford James and drummer Louis Hayes, burn throughout. But Dexter still stars, rendering foolish anyone who might not have expected that a 53 year old who had been at the vanguard of the bebop movement 30 years prior would be able to adapt to music that had evolved so far from that.
9 ) “Tanya” from Manhattan Symphonie (1978)
The original version of this song (from One Flight Up 14 years prior) is a classic that surely would have made this list if I weren’t trying to spread things out. But this version, from my personal favorite of his albums for Columbia (thanks to Jeff Grace for hipping me to it), is every bit as authoritative. The deep swing and comparative simplicity of the chord progression give Dexter space to demonstrate his endless melodic inventiveness, and the track wonderfully showcases his classic quartet of the era, also featuring pianist George Cables, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Eddie Gladden.
10 ) “As Time Goes By” from Another Side of ‘Round Midnight (1985)
My first exposure to the name Dexter Gordon came before I’d ever given jazz music a second thought, as he was given a surprise nomination for a Best Actor Oscar for his depiction of a jazz musician in the film ‘Round Midnight. So when I first heard him mentioned as a musician, maybe 4 years after that, I was surprised and thought “oh, that guy who was an actor for a minute?” Eventually I circled back to the gorgeous music from the film, and this ballad in particular demonstrates that he still had it. This track also provides a prime example of John McLaughlin playing in a straight-ahead acoustic ballad setting.