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Round Midnight by Dexter Gordon

Just seeing Dexter Gordon in the audience on Oscar night--a bemused jazzman among the glittering and posturing actors and actresses like James Woods or Jane Fonda--made the filming of Round Midnight worthwhile. As the camera caught Gordon’s face, he leaned to the friend accompanying him to the ceremonies and no doubt made a wry or profane remark. Just as likely, he must have been amazed that he would have been nominated for the role of best actor, losing to none other than Paul Newman. That was quite an accomplishment for Gordon’s first acting role.

Just as incredible, though, was the fact that Bertrand Tavernier was able to make a movie about an expatriate musician that had no chase scenes or the cruelty and violence of Platoon or the sappiness of Peggy Sue Got Married. Nor the clashing cymbal of Bird or the use of a "real" actor to dramatize the life of a real jazz musician. A fictional documentary based in large part of the life of Bud Powell, Tavernier eventually retained the perfect embodiment of the spirit of a jazz musician living in Europe, having left his homeland out of resignation of disgust to find a better life of, once again, playing night after night in clubs. Tavernier’s first concern was the slowness of Gordon’s speech, but eventually he too realized that the voice of the jazzman, wise and mellifluous and laid back, was appropriate.

Just as inspired as the choice of leading actor, though, was the fact that Herbie Hancock came in as musical director, proving once again his unparalleled ability to create and sustain mood through his music. In addition, Hancock wrote a few new tunes for the movie, most notably the gorgeous "Chan’s Song," which closed the movie with the appropriate note of sadness and triumph.

One of the premier jazz sound tracks, Round Midnight has been released again for another generation to appreciate. Following the sequence of the tunes throughout the CD as much the same order as they appeared in the movie, the striking aspect of the CD is the exceptional quality of the music. Featuring instrumental voices like Gordon himself, Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Billy Higgins, Chet Baker or Bobby Hutcherson, they not only are distinctive, but also they have influenced multitudes of musicians in a successive generation or two.

So, we get to hear Hancock and Hutcherson play a duo on "Minuit Aux Champs-Elysées," crystalline in its prismatic colors shimmering with a melodic simplicity. Yet, they attain a level of complexity made possible by the piling on of layers of shading, a quote of the song "Round Midnight" wittily and appropriately thrown in.

Or, we get to hear Gordon’s version of "Body And Soul," 180 degrees from Coleman Hawkins’ with Gordon’s roughness and off-the-cuff feel, in spite of the smoothing effect of the rhythm section’s gentle vamp, not to mention John McLaughlin’s straightforward solo, respectful of the tenor lead. And Wayne Shorter’s interpretation of Jimmy Rowles’ "The Peacocks," with its intervals suggestive of avian colors and flutter, is one of the finest recorded.

The puzzling aspect of this sound track has always been the inclusion of Bobby McFerrin to sing the title song and "Chan’s Song" wordlessly, as is his wont, a disconnect with the weariness and worldliness of the movie’s theme. How much better it would have been if Dexter Gordon had played those 2 most memorable tunes from the movie instead, his own sound capping it off so that the inimitable sound of his sax remained in our heads as we left the theater or turned off the television.

Actually, the producers of the reissue have done just that by including a bonus track of Gordon playing live at the Village Vanguard in 1976 with Woody Shaw, Ronnie Mathews, Stafford James and Louis Hayes. And all of the earthiness and staggering of the beat are there, but in a setting that received energy from the audience, therefore allowing Dex to wander in directions that a pre-arranged studio setting wouldn’t allow.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Dexter Gordon
  • CD Title: Round Midnight
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Reissue Original Release: 1986
  • Record Label: Columbia/Legacy
  • Tracks: ‘Round Midnight, Body And Soul, Bérangére’s Nightmare, Fair Weather, Una Noche Con Grancis, The Peacocks, How Long Has This Been Going On, Rhythm-A-Ning, Still Time, Minuit Aux Champs-Elysées, Chan’s Song, ‘Round Midnight
  • Musicians: Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Chet Baker, trumpet, vocals; Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, trumpet; Herbie Hancock, Cedar Walton, Ronnie Mathews, piano; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; John McLaughlin, guitar; Ron Carter, Pierre Michelot, Stafford James, bass; Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, Louis Hayes, drums; Bobby McFerrin, Lonette McKee, vocals
  • Rating: Five Stars
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