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Liner Notes: Dexter Gordon’s Doin’ Allright — by Ira Gitler

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Dexter Gordon

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     Although Dexter Gordson’s influence was felt by many of the great tenor saxophonists of the 1950’s, due to what is often described as “personal demons,” he was pretty much overlooked throughout the decade. “Dexter was able to consolidate his substantial progress only during the first couple of years in the fifties,” wrote Stan Britt, author of Dexter Gordon: A Musical Biography. “Thereafter, his was to become something of a half-forgotten name among jazz personalities of the decade.” At the root of this inactivity was, of course, that “demon” — heroin. His two year incarceration for heroin possession, followed by the death of his close friend Wardell Gray was, Britt wrote, “scarcely adequate preparation for even a temporary ‘comeback’ as a recording artist, the personal suffering of prison — physical, mental, spiritual — aside.”

     Out of jail, he made a couple of sessions for Bethlehem Records, and one for Dootone, but then more dope, another arrest, and more jail time. Gordon was “inside,” playing with guys in the “jug,” while his musical peers were making history on the “outside.” In 1959, the year of Kind of Blue and Take Five, the man who was often cited as being among the first tenor players to play bebop on his instrument didn’t even make it to the Down Beat “Best Of” poll.

     Following his second parole, this one in 1960, with the help of producer Orrin Keepnews and Cannonball Adderley, Gordon recorded The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon, and composed music for and acted in the Los Angeles production of The Connection, a story that Britt describes as concerning “a group of junkies who are waiting for their dealer to arrive with a fresh supply of heroin.” Dexter’s acting “was singled out for individual praise from several critical sources, notably for his ad-lib contributions to the dialogue.” (As we saw in later years, his ability to act was not limited to this role).

     Dexter then traveled to New York, and it is at this point in his story where Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records enters, offering him a contract to record for the esteemed label, and the first, Doin’ Allright — recorded in May, 1961 — is featured in this edition of “Liner Notes.”

     Written by Ira Gitler — a Prestige Records producer, journalist, author of hundreds of album liner notes, and who is perhaps most famously known as the man who imagined the music of John Coltrane to be “sheets of sound” — the notes to Doin’ Allright offer a nice biography of Gordon and bring a spirit of renewal and optimism to Gordon’s comeback. The LP itself is pure Blue Note, featuring the crisp Rudy Van Gelder-engineered sound, and a Reid Miles design of a Francis Wolff photograph.

    Dexter Gordon’s is a great biography to revisit, and this album is a terrific place to start.

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     DEXTER GORDON — there is a name to conjure with. Veteran listeners will certainly remember him but younger fans probably will not although he was intermittently active during the ’50s. To musicians (especially those saxophonists who have been directly or indirectly influenced by him), Dexter Gordon has always been a highly important player. As the first man to synthesize the Young, Hawkins and Parker strains in translating the bop idiom to the tenor saxophone, he was an important contributor. It is not, however, from a stylistic, historical angle that he has been appreciated. Dexter has always been a direct, exciting communicator of emotions; his big sound and declarative attack are as commanding of attention as his imposing height.

     The owner of an acute harmonic sense, Gordon has never used it to merely run changes accurately. He is a melodist and can also contrast rhythmic figures effectively. His harmonic awareness was a great aid in preparing him to plunge into the new music that was fermenting in the early ’40s. Unlike many of his immediate contemporaries, Gordon studied harmony and theory at the age of 13, the same time he took up the clarinet. Due to this, he was able to actively incorporate the beneficial effects directly into his playing as he was growing up. At 15, he started playing alto sax and two years later, in 1940, he quit school, switched to tenor sax and joined the “Harlem Collegians” in his native Los Angeles. From this local band he stepped into Lionel Hampton’s aggregation in December 1940 and remained with Hamp through 1943. Illinois Jacquet was the principal tenorman and together they were featured on Po’k Chops. “It was about the only thing I had to play,” says Dexter.

     After leaving Hampton, he returned to Los Angeles where he played with the groups of Lee Young (Lester Young’s drumming brother) and Jesse Price. For six months in 1944, Dexter worked with Louis Armstrong’s band. Then he joined Billy Eckstine’s new orchestra and received a real chance to be heard; the tenor battle with Gene Ammons on Blowin’ the Blues Away; his own bits on Lonesome Lover Blues and several of the modern jazz instrumentals that the band played.

     Gordons’ impact was immediate. You could hear it in the work of his section-mate, Ammons. When he left Eckstine for New York’s 52nd Street in 1945, his influence spread like the ripples a large rock makes when it is dropped in a pool of water. Allen Eager’s first quartet recordings (Booby Hatch, Rampage) showed that he was listening and Stan Getz was captured temporarily according to such sides as Opus de Bop and Running Water. Of course, like Gordon, these players had been affected by Lester Young, but it seemed that in addition to getting inspiration directly from Pres, they were digging the Gordon translation, too. If a 12-inch, Mercury 78 rpm of Rosetta and I’ve Found a New Baby, cut with Harry Edison, demonstrated that Dexter could get very close to Young, the original version of Groovin’ High, made with Dizzy Gillespie for Guild in February of 1945, showed a Gordon who had his own interpretation of the day’s material.

     Gordon worked at the Spotlite Club with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Bud Powell and then had his own group at the Three Deuces. The weekly Sunday afternoon sessions at the Fraternal Clubhouse and Lincoln Square Center usually included Dex as part of their all-star line-ups. His presence, before he even blew a note, always had an electric effort on the audience.

     Gordon returned to the West Coast in the summer of 1946 but not before he had made several recordings with his own groups. He played for two months in Hawaii with Cee Pee Johnson. Then, in California, in the summer of 1947, he and Wardell Gray teamed up at concerts, after-hours sessions and for their recording of The Chase. Later that year, it was back to New York and 52nd Street for Gordon but in 1948, he went home again, not to return to Manhattan until the May 1961 trip to record for Blue Note. He revived his association with Gray in 1950 but that soon ended and the next decade was not a very productive one for Dexter. The popularity of “West Coast” jazz left little opportunity for his brand of virile music to be heard in Southern California. Then, too, he was fighting personal demons. In the last five years of the ’50s, he made only three record dates (two as leader) and worked sporadically in a small group context.

     The ’60s are a decade of new promise for Gordon. Through playwright Carl Thaler, he became involved in the West Coast version of Jack Gelber’s The Connection. He composed an original score, led the quartet that played it on stage andheld down a main speaking role. His success gavehim a new confidence and led to a general revitalization.

     Although his presence has not been directly felt on the jazz scene as a whole in a long time, Dexter has been with us, in part, through the work of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, two of the most important instrumentalists to develop in the ’50s. Both owe a debt to Gordon for helping them to form their now highly personal styles. It is interesting to hear how Gordon, in turn, has now picked up on developments brought about by the men he originally influenced. Make no mistake, however, about Dexter. He is still very much his own man. His great inner power stands out in these recordings. He breathes maturity in every phrase he plays, his gigantic sound living up to the kind of musical voice one would expect from a person of his god-like dimensions.

     A musician of Gordon’s reputation (particularly in the special setting of this recording), playing at the top of his game, will always inspire the men around him to do their best. Here, young Freddie Hubbard, impressive as he has been on Blue Note in the past, adds new, thoughtful qualities to his brassy fire. That this was no ordinary date is evident in every microgroove.

     The rhythm sections plays for Dexter, seeming to sense what he wants, flowing his lead yet never lagging. These three are no strangers to Blue Noters. As the Horace Parlan trio or as 3/5 of the Horace Parlan quintet (with the Terrentine brothers as the horns), they have made several swinging LPs. Presently, they are appearing around New York with tenorman Booker Ervin under the title, The Playhouse Four.

     George Gershwin’s I Was Doing All Right, the opener and title tune, is stated in a full-toned manner by Gordon at a loping medium tempo. He eases into his unhurried solo with a couple of bows to his old buddy Wardell Gray. Logic, warmth and melody abound. Hubbard plays beautifully and pensively, putting one in mind of Clifford Brown and some of Miles Davis’ early ’50s thinking. Parlan picks up the mood and spins out his solo in an equally relaxed, thoughtful way, ending with some perfumed chords. The way he handles a ballad is one good indicator of a musician’s depth. Dexter’s You’ve Changed is a gorgeous piece of meaningful horn-singing by a man who knows what it’s all about. Some of the lower register tones remind me of Don Byas, another old Gordon colleague (52nd Street vintage) who influenced quite a few people himself. The upper register and the story told are unmistakably Gordon. Hubbard is inspired again to play a poignant albeit short bit. Parlan’s even shorter interlude leads back to Gordon’s tender conclusion. Billie Holiday couldn’t have done it any better herself.

     For Regulars Only is a Gordon original with a catchy, contrasting theme. Dexter masterfully demonstrates how to build a solo, climbing up the thermometer, chorus after chorus, until his last one satisfies completely. Hubbard cooks in a brief solo; Parlan alternates his stint between single-line and chords.

     A marching, skippy, funky blues is Gordon’s Society Red. It settles into a stead 4/4 as Hubbard takes an opening solo that heats things up with leaping rhythmic figures and a brightly burning flame of a sound. Again, Gordon builds to a point of climax. Here he does it more slowly than in For Regulars Only, spreading his expansive tone over a longer period of time. Parlan’s single-line leads into a blue chordal exploration before George Tucker plucks his only lengthy solo of the set.

     It’s You or No One finds Dexter ascending to the upper reaches of his horn, alternating swift flights with rhythmic punching. Freddie is fleet but with underlying substance. After Horace’s solo, Tucker walks and Harewood talks as they weave in and out of the ensemble.

     All in all, Dexter Gordon’s trip to New York was very fruitful. He renewed old acquaintance, made some new friends, bought a couple of groovy suits at a Broadway clothier and began an association with Blue Note that should prove to be mutually significant.

     Dexter Gordon is a big man physically and musically. This album is representative of that kind of size.

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“I Was Doing All Right”

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Dexter Gordon’s official website

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iragitler

Ira Gitler (born December 18, 1928, Brooklyn, New York) is an American jazz historian and journalist. Perhaps best known for The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz written with Leonard Feather — the most recent edition appeared in 1999 — he has written hundreds of liner notes for jazz recordings since the early 1950s and is the author of dozens of books about jazz and ice hockey, two of his passions.

Gitler’s complete Wikipedia biography