Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon is a jazz legend and one of the most fascinating musicians of the bebop and hard bop eras. Join us as we unpack four of his essential albums from the 1960s and 70s.
Over a career spanning more than 40 years, Dexter Gordon rarely released a bad or even mediocre album. He was skilled at walking the line between accessible and experimental and consistently played soulful, interesting and complex music.
In the middle of his career, Dexter Gordon, like many jazz musicians of the time, travelled to Europe where he would live and work for fourteen years. Then, in the late 1970s, he returned to America for a rapturous homecoming.
His return to the States, along with the work of Art Blakey during the 1970s, is credited as being instrumental in the revival of acoustic jazz following the fusion jazz era.
Measuring in at 6 feet 6 inches, Gordon’s height earned him the nickname ‘Long Tall Dexter’ along with several other titles that referenced his colossal stature.
In this article, we’ll be exploring four of the most influential albums from the ‘Sophisticated Giant’.
Dexter Calling… (1961)
By the time Dexter Gordon released this, his second album for Blue Note, he had been playing tenor saxophone for over 15 years.
The 50s had been a challenging decade for his career. Struggles with heroin addiction and prison time stymied his creativity and held Dexter back from thriving.
But, a move to New York and a new deal with Blue Note seemed to breathe new life into his career.
He released a steady string of great albums during this period, with ‘Dexter Calling…’ being the first masterpiece. Backed by Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums, Gordon plays with an energy that inspires his band to higher levels.
The song selection here is top of the line, with Gordon contributing ‘Soul Sister’, ‘I Want More’, and ‘Ernie’s Tune’.
Drew also contributes two fascinating tracks, particularly ‘Modal Mood’. It is here that Gordon starts exploring modal tonalities.
Gordon’s ability to play in and within the melody is at its finest throughout this album. Gordon stays within the song and the melody’s structure, unlike some players but continually adds new harmonies and variations to keep the music consistently engaging.
Amazingly, things would get even better for Gordon on later albums.
If Dexter Gordon ever released a perfect album, this may be it.
Inspired by the lessons learned on ‘Dexter Calling…’ he gathered several tracks from an August session that produced ‘A Swingin’ Affair’.
The personnel for these two albums consisted of Gordon on tenor saxophone, Sonny Clark on piano, Butch Warren on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums.
And while each of these musicians is key to the success of this recording, it is clear right away that Gordon is in total control.
Taking a deeper dive into the hard bop and model sounds he’d integrated into his playing on ‘Dexter Calling’, Gordon assimilates the influence of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane into his more accessible yet intricate style.
Consisting of a diverse array of songs that includes classics like ‘I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry‘ and ‘Love for Sale’, the album consistently shows off Gordon’s innate creativity.
‘Go!’ has also been praised for how well it captures Gordon’s skills in a live performance. While it doesn’t include his jokes, the album captures the joy and passion of one of his live shows.
The players here also seem to push each other to higher levels. Clark reacts perfectly to each of Gordon’s improvisational gambits and provides skilled and stylish backing.
Higgins may just be one of the great underrated drummers in jazz.
His agility and energy push Gordon and Clark forward in unpredictable ways. And Warren provides a surprisingly flexible anchor to keep the band grounded.
Our Man in Paris (1963)
Gordon’s success (both critically and commercially) following ‘Go!’ and other albums from this period inspired a surge of interest in his music overseas.
Multiple concert offers in England and other European countries inspired Gordon to tour the continent. And while his stay may have been meant as a temporary one, he ended up living between Paris and Copenhagen for many years.
This album’s inspired choice of standards lets Gordon and the band continually reinvent the music, expand on its melodic content, and show the depth inherent in each song.
Interestingly, the album may have turned out different if its initial plan was followed.
Kenny Drew, who also lived in Europe at the time, was set to play on the recording. Instead, however, Bud Powell was chosen for the album as he too lived in Europe and Gordon wanted a chance to play with the legendary jazz musician. But Powell refused to play anything but standards.
Fortunately, their choices here were strong. Starting with Charlie Parker’s ‘Scrapple From the Apple,’ the band immediately sets the tone for the record.
Gordon plays with inspired intensity, pushing the troubled Powell to some of the finest work of his career. Powell seems to loosen up playing here, pushing a little less hard than average and allowing some beautiful harmonies to enter into the tracks.
The rhythm section of Pierre Michelot on bass and Kenny Clarke are flexible, supple, and continually entertaining. The whole album particularly comes together on ‘A Night in Tunisia’, where Gordon is on fire.
Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard (1977)
Gordon’s time in Europe was one of continual success, both on his albums and on stage.
While in Europe, he mostly missed out on the electric jazz movement spreading through America at the time.
The continent, on the other hand, still much preferred the sounds of acoustic jazz and Gordon was more than happy to oblige.
As this perfectly named live document suggests, more than a few American fans were ready to hear some classic acoustic jazz when Dexter returned to New York for this homecoming album.
Along with “Sophisticated Giant” and “Manhattan Symphonie,” this album was key to the revival of melodic and swinging jazz music.
While the electric sounds of the time were still popular and pushing to new territories, the rich potential of acoustic jazz was ignored. However, after Gordon’s triumphant return home, acoustic jazz roared back to the forefront of the scene.
Listening to this double album, it’s not hard to see why it inspired so much excitement.
Gordon, backed by Woody Shaw on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ronnie Mathews on piano, Stafford James on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums, play extended versions of favourites like “Gingerbread Boy” and “In Case You Haven’t Heard” with excellent skill, plenty of invention, and perfect melodic ability.
Which Dexter Gordon albums would you include in this list? Let us know in the comments.
Discover more about the greats of jazz saxophone here or check out our rundown of the best saxophonists in jazz history.