Graded on a Curve: Dexter Gordon,
Our Man in Paris

On May 23 of 1963 a trio of bebop originals joined up with a worthy European compatriot and visited CBS Studios in Paris. The comeback of tenor giant Dexter Gordon was well underway, but the Continent was a relatively recent change of scene. Pianist Bud Powell and drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke had been living in France for quite some time however, and bassist Pierre Michelot was born there. Together this quartet agreed upon five standards and executed them with utter brilliance. Blue Note titled it Our Man in Paris, and 51 years later it remains a classic.

They ate voraciously as Dean, sandwich in hand, stood bowed and jumping before the big phonograph, listening to a wild bop record I had just bought called “The Hunt,” with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Much deserved praise gets heaped on Dexter Gordon for his comeback(s), but it can be occasionally overlooked that even if he never came back at all, he’d be a hugely important figure anyway. To begin, he’s the most distinctive tenor saxophonist to emerge from the ‘40s bop scene, extending the influence of Lester Young and quickly adapting the innovations of Charlie Parker, recording with Bird and Dizzy Gillespie and as a leader for Savoy before heading back to California and cutting those tenor battle 78s for Dial, the very sides that impacted Kerouac and Neal Cassady (i.e. Dean Moriarty) so massively.

It was heroin that nearly ended Gordon’s career for good; the ‘50s were a lost decade, though he did cut two records in ’55, Daddy Plays the Horn for Bethlehem in September and Daddy Blows Hot and Cool for Dootone two months later. After kicking the habit, he commenced his return with The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon, a minor session (some would call it a false start) for the Jazzland label.

He then hooked up with Blue Note and began the gorgeous string of LPs that brought him back to the spotlight, the first four discs, Doin’ Alright, Dexter Calling, Go!, and A Swingin’ Affair, were made between ’60-’62 in the US with a largely younger and wholly unimpeachable cast of post-bop disciples, and they range in quality from masterful (Go!, the title of which nods to the Beat Generation by referencing the John Clellon Holmes novel that’s publication predates On the Road) to very good (the other three).

Then Gordon up and moved to Copenhagen, and if his popularity was set to temporarily wane in his home country, he was poised for a round of statesman status in Europe, though the flow of Blue Note albums continued unabated. The first Euro effort is Our Man in Paris, arguably his very best for the label, and one that’s certainly distinct in his discography, mainly because its commendable quartet offers a long taste of uncut bebop flavor on five well-chosen standards.

The odd man out might seem to be Michelot, but that’s only somewhat true. Born in 1928, he was only five years younger than Gordon. Furthermore, he not only played with the two preeminent pre-bop sax giants Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, he also kept company with key Gordon contemporary Don Byas. Add Dizzy, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, and Miles Davis to the equation as well. Along with Barney Wilen, René Urtreger, Kenny Clarke, and leader Davis, he plays on the soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, known in the US under the title Elevator to the Gallows.

Plus, after Bud Powell’s arrival in France in ’59, the pianist, Clarke and Michelot formed The Three Bosses. With nearly five years’ experience as a group behind them, Gordon’s support for this date was secure. Clarke was the first to migrate to French shores in ’56, and the fact that he, Powell and Gordon were but three examples of this musical exodus speaks to the respect that many in Europe and especially in France were paying to jazz, a situation comparable to the perceptive appreciation from certain French observers for the same era’s soon to be revered Hollywood movies.

As the drummer at Minton’s Playhouse in the early ‘40s, Kenny Clarke sat in on the key jam sessions that gave birth to bebop, and he’s often credited with the innovation of Modern Jazz drumming. His résumé is loaded with vital releases (for one, he’s a major factor in Dizzy’s RCA Victor recordings), and that he remained relevant as an artist for decades after his initial heyday (in ’83 he cut the Pieces of Time LP for Soul Note with free jazz heavies Andrew Cyrille, Don Moye, and Milford Graves) is testament to his greatness.

With his friend Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell is bebop’s greatest innovator on the piano, with his style proving vastly influential to this very moment. Absolutely mandatory to any jazz collection are the first two volumes of The Amazing Bud Powell, and that’s just for starters. The apex of Powell’s achievement is amongst the finest American art of the 20th century, and his victimization through shock treatment by the medical establishment (in a manner similar to Beat figure Carl Solomon, the man to whom Ginsberg’s “Howl” is dedicated), is representative of the USA at its lowest ebb.

Interestingly, the original plan for Our Man in Paris was to highlight Gordon’s new compositions with longtime cohort Kenny Drew (he served as the pianist on Daddy Plays the Horn) in the band, but when Bud walked in (sorry), the focus changed; at this point in his career, Powell reportedly refused to play new music. This might read like a bad omen, and on another day that could’ve easily been the case, since by ’63, Powell’s mental and physical health was far from great (just a touch over three years later he was dead from tuberculosis).

But on this day, Powell was in grand artistic form, though the forced consideration of older stuff does give Our Man in Paris the aura of embryonic bop classicism. In other situations this could surely be a diminishing factor, but here, with four exemplary performers (three of them singular originators) clicking as a spectacular unit, the mood actually works to the music’s advantage.

But the biggest reason for the record’s success comes down to Gordon’s intensity and imagination. Dexter’s instrument was the tenor sax, a well-suited horn for those ‘40s battles with Gray and Teddy Edwards, friendly bouts that unequivocally influenced both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane (“Tenor Madness”), but on this LP’s opening take of the Charlie Parker staple “Scrapple from the Apple,” Gordon’s playing is infused with fire and creative spark that’s quite up-to-date.

Along with impressive stamina, his economy and playfulness is striking. It’s easy to tell he’s open to the improvising of numerous younger players shaped (whether they knew it or not) by his early work, with Gordon listening to their advances and then adjusting those elements to his own style, but just as significant was his attention to melodicism, or to reference Nat Hentoff quoting British critic Alan Beckett on the sleeve’s liner notes, Dexter’s “gruff lyricism.”

Or to put it another way, he didn’t soft-pedal the slow songs, as second track “Willow Weep for Me” makes clear. In fact, his playing is possessed with such fleet gutsiness it can get easily misplaced that the song’s a ballad. His ability to bring both emotion and ideas to his balladic approach, therefore avoiding either sinking into timidity or succumbing to the crutch of cliché keeps his music interesting even when those assembled around him aren’t up to the task, though Our Man in Paris doesn’t have that problem.

Clarke’s drumming is stellar throughout, but I really like him during the opener, with his range and boisterousness a total treat. Also remarkable is Powell’s solo spot in “Willow Weep for Me,” his execution extending the vigorous melodic motif established through Gordon’s lengthy solo. And when the ball is handed off to Michelot he does not fumble but instead gives a small clinic in succinctness.

With the uptempo “Broadway” it’s swing time. The band moves with such lithe power as Gordon’s horn emotes with easy raucousness that the liner’s allusion to the avant-garde still resonates. Additionally, Hentoff’s lauding of Powell’s Basie-esque conclusion to the number is also apropos; it’s specifically these sorts of moments that make Gordon’s post-comeback albums such unique objects in the post-bop universe.

“Stairway to the Stars” returns us to ballad territory, and it’s to this group’s credit that a tune this familiar (some would say overplayed) and drenched in unambiguous romanticism inflicts no damage on this LP’s qualitative whole. Gordon could play prettily and even be downright gentle, but like a true lover, his tenderness was always passionate. And his band responds in kind; nobody’s falling back on tropes or gliding on auto-pilot. Clarke in particular is a fount of refreshing accents and gestures.

But a glorious closing reading of Dizzy’s “A Night in Tunisia,” which seems at times to be lightly riffing on Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard version, elevates the album to an uncommon plateau, displaying the richest soloing on the record as it bookends the disc with undisputed bop classics. Michelot nimbly sets the tone as Gordon’s magnificent playing emerges to explore a wide spectrum of possibilities. Powell follows with a terrifically individualist yet never irreverent solo, and like a pugilist, Clarke gets in his shots. All that’s left is the head and the wrap-up; the sum of the whole is sublime.

Our Man in Paris should not be taken as a substitute for what Cleo Henry called Boplicity, so please do not sleep on Gordon’s early, pre-comeback material. But once acquainted with the initial work of Long Tall Dexter, this LP makes a fine next step. His other Euro Blue Note One Flight Up has pianist Drew, trumpeter Donald Byrd, drummer Art Taylor, and another Euro bass master, the wily Dane Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and when that one’s good it’s really good but it’s not as good as this one.

His creative revitalization was far from over (there was the ‘70s homecoming concerts, and even later Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight, where the saxophonist starred as a fictional composite of Lester Young and Bud Powell and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role) but Our Man in Paris endures as one of his very best. It’s a sound simultaneously rare and as natural as breathing; Dexter Gordon and three of his peers in a room cutting an album of undiminished excellence with casual grace.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+
Originally published on 5/15/14.

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text