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XXL - Live at the Left Bank by Dexter Gordon

It is not exactly clear where the fascination lies for jazz fans in repeatedly sending their greatest heroes through an up and down cycle of discovery, alternately adulating and ignoring them, often clamoring about the heightened joy of rediscovery while the musician is ironically snickering about never really having gone anywhere in the first place. Taste, of course, is notorious for being among the most fickle of human attributes, but jazz fans are particularly adept at relegating once-greats to the dustbins of history until they either disappear or distinguish themselves by simply surviving so damn long. Call it the necessary Now hiding in the appreciation of a music that constantly demands novelty; or, as critic Gary Giddins does, call it the "Middle Passage" in a jazz musician's life - that space between being a "young phenom" and a "living legend" that sucks away hope for recording contracts, gigs, and recognition like a vacuum. Silence, often, is the sound of exile.

No one was better acquainted with this phenomenon than tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, forgotten and rediscovered so many times in his career that such proclamations in retrospect sound altogether ridiculous. The fascinating thing about his sound is to listen to how little its burnished, brilliant contours changed over the course of his career; despite the changes in popular taste that marked his subsequent forgettings and rememberings, Long Tall Dex continued on a straightforward path of bebop-emboldened melodic invention first fashioned in the Los Angeles nightlife of the late 1940s. In doing so, he preached a moving, informative sermon about the means of overcoming menacing circumstances through the power of individual strength, patience, and perseverance. This is epitomized in this newly released live performance at the end of "Love for Sale," when on the rideout he references his landmark 1962 version on the Blue Note album Go, but reshapes it with updated rhythmic accents - seven years on, still preaching the scripture of theme and variation. Patience and consistency overcoming ignorance.

If anything, then, this live disc gives the lie to that old marketer's gambit of exile/homecoming, offering a solid hour of Dexter Gordon in fine form a full seven or eight years before his "return" was proclaimed by the execs at Columbia. And in a Baltimore nightclub, no less. There are only three tunes on the program - a jaunty "Rhythm-a-ning,", the tour-de-force "Love for Sale," both over twenty minutes and with round robin solos, and a long, luscious "Misty," executed primarily by tenor and piano. If there is a drawback to this unedited, jam-session feel, it is certainly in the tyranny of the round of solos format, which tires once or twice during the overly long contributions of bassist Victor Gaskin. And yet, when Dexter steps up to the mike, one simply wishes he would keep going ad infinitum, spurred onward by his remarkable ability to work a melody beyond its obvious contours.

But what the program lacks in variety, it certainly makes up for in old-fashioned, straightforward bebop fireworks. The surprise highlight is having Bobby Timmons on piano with two solos where he gets the chance to spread out, take off his coat and stay awhile. It is repeatedly rewarding to hear him released from the strictures of soul-jazz formulas, letting his left hand propel his right-hand arpeggio inventions. If you are thirsting for more of his Blakey-era burning, unencumbered by commercial requirements, here he lets loose a furious game of tag with the harmony of "Rhythm-a-ning," pursuing it with chordal accents just long enough to run away with short horn-like phrases.

This, of course, is precisely the virtue of live jazz, the meat on the bones of flexible compositions as they are assembled, entered and then reconstituted through spontaneous invention. And here, consistently and repeatedly, Gordon evinces his customary internalization of this imperative, the "barbaric yawp" of one nighters and pick up groups, the careening creativity of popular melody expanded, opened, and upended. It's easy on a piece like "Rhythm-a-ning," studded as it is with typically Monkian angles on that blues base, but he also accomplishes it on a tired old tune like "Misty." This is art music for the masses, abstraction glistening with the beads of Gordon's encyclopedic index of catchy phrases and foot-tapping fillips, submitting uncomplicated structures to the satisfying bent of his delayed resolutions - open ends pushed along further to an ever-more thrilling conclusion.

Much like the live Steeplechase recordings that bookend this moment in Dexter Gordon's history (the series of discs from 1964 and 1975), this 1969 date exhibits the productivity and astonishing volubility of his imagination, partly by simply being one more night in his long and loveable career; not the summit, but a constant, inclined plateau. Notably, if his stateside appreciation seemed to bob up and down erratically during this period, then XXL testifies to the sure and steady scope of his own vision.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Dexter Gordon
  • CD Title: XXL - Live at the Left Bank
  • Genre: BeBop / Hard Bop
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: Prestige
  • Tracks: Rhythm-a-ning, Misty, Love for Sale
  • Musicians: Dexter Gordon (tenor saxophone), Bobby Timmons (piano), Victor Gaskin (bass), Percy Brice (drums)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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