Dexter Gordon was the first great, and widely influential, bebop tenor man. Six feet five inches tall, with the looks and bearing of a Hollywood leading man, Gordon himself eventually became a movie star, of sorts, thanks to his Oscar-nominated turn in 1986’s ‘Round Midnight. But it was as a musician that “Long Tall Dexter” gave the world nearly five towering decades of profound, personality-laden performances. Initially inspired by Lester Young, Gordon combined Pres’s cool, Swing Era-based approach with the new harmonic and rhythmic breakthroughs of bebop avatar Charlie Parker, forging an appealingly individual, perpetually swinging sound.
Gordon (1923-1990) was a Los Angeles doctor’s son who paid his dues in full, and then some; he spent much of the 1950s in the California penal system, having been convicted on narcotics violations. Soon after his release in 1960, Gordon moved to Europe (he was based mostly in Copenhagen ) until returning to the States full-time in the mid-1970s. Gordon’s discography, among the most extensive and estimable in jazz; was marked by lengthy affiliations with four labels: Blue Note in the 1960s; the Danish recording company SteepleChase in the ‘70s; and, after coming home to stay in 1976, Columbia . The fourth label graced by Gordon was Prestige, one of the most important modern jazz independents. Between 1965 and 1973 he appeared on some 15 Prestige albums. Now, for the first time, they’re collected in the exceptional boxed set, The Complete Prestige Recordings.
Here is Dexter dealing in the studio and live, from the top to the bottom of his horn; of the 88 prime cuts herein, 17 are previously unissued. All the elements of his definitive style are front and center: the virile tone, suggesting a sizzling, juicy Porterhouse steak with all the trimmings, washed down by a 1982 Petrus; the deftly Lestorian, behind-the-beat phrasing; the multiple witty quotations, drawing on everything from “La Marseillaise” to “A Night in Tunisia” to “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man;” and the tough-tender way with a ballad, summoning images of Bogie and Bergman on the tarmac in Casablanca. The set also contains an exuberant 1950 live jam with fellow ace tenor Wardell Gray, as well as the six 1960 selections originally heard on the Jazzland LP The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon, which marked his return to the scene after a five-year absence.
Backed by a series of invaluable rhythm sections, Gordon sets the pace somewhere between bebop and hard bop, essaying standards, modern jazz staples, blues and the odd contemporary pop tune (e.g., “Those Were the Days”). He also finds himself in pitched battles with fellow top-drawer tenor men Booker Ervin, James Moody, and Gene Ammons, his old section mate and friendly rival from their days in Billy Eckstine’s groundbreaking band of the 1940s. With splendidly detailed annotation by critic Ted Panken, Dexter Gordon: The Complete Prestige Recordings sheds new light on a somewhat overlooked phase of a remarkable career.
Although it’s been said, many times, many ways: “Blow, Mr. Dexter!”