Album review

Dexter Gordon Quartet – ‘Willisau 1978’

Dexter Gordon Quartet – Willisau 1978 – (Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series Vol. 45)

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(The Montreux Jazz Label TCB 02452 . Album review by Alison Bentley)

That great bear hug of a sound; that intelligent improvising tinged with humour- can there be any jazz lover who doesn’t miss Dexter Gordon? It’s all here in this live set from 1978 with his starry US quartet.

From the first note you sense what a good raconteur Dexter is. (It feels too impersonal to call him “Gordon”.) You want to sit back and be absorbed in what he has to say. “The bridge between Lester (Young) and (John) Coltrane” is how director Tavernier described his playing, which seems apposite. Dexter won an Oscar for his work in Tavernier’s film Round Midnight, and he’s spoken in a 1962 interview of how important it is for jazz musicians to ”… get more communication going between themselves and their audiences…” There’s a strong sense of that as an Afro-Latin pedal point launches On Green Dolphin Street into pulsing swing. The superb pianist George Cables started out listening to Coltrane and Miles and plays clean horn-like lines here. He moves across the beat with  Eddie Gladden’s frothy cymbals and time stands still.

Parker and McShann’sThe Jumpin’ Blues is more urgent, with Dexter’s bop phrasing still relaxed. Sometimes he sounds caught up in the speedy logic of his musical thoughts, then you sense him slowing to check the audience is still with him. The drums build tension then explode into swing. Randy Weston’s Hi-Fly avoids the original’s tense harmonies. Dexter plays each repeated phrase in its own way as the chords change underneath, with reassuringly normcore swing. When he solos in double time the notes take on a life of their own. Bassist Rufus Reid’s solo keeps the tune’s loping feel, the sweet vibrato on longer notes contrasting with the incredible staccato agility.   

The slow, breathy sax/bass opening to Old Folks has anostalgic beauty, enhanced by shimmering spread piano chords. Dexter pulls the melody out of shape with expressive bebop phrases. Cables’ solo feature is virtuosic: you hear rococo Art Tatum mixed with bop till it settles into silky blues. Silver’s Strollin’ concludes the set. Dexter’s vibrant solo teases us as fragments of other tunes fly by, effortlessly tweaked to fit the chords: Nursey rhymes, I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, Poinciana, There’s a Small Hotel, Out of Nowhere, Ornithology…the crowd roars its appreciation.

“Practise, practise,” Dexter advises young musicians in his 1962 interview. “Blow every time you get a chance. And you gotta have heart.” This album balances brilliance and heart perfectly.

Recorded live at Hotel Mohren, Willisau, March 4, 1978

LINK: Willisau 1978 at Challenge Records

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