Dexter Gordon’s Ballads: Smoke gets in your ears

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Ballads: Dexter Gordon

Chicago jazz sax player Frank Catalano isn’t a big fan of ballads, so you rarely hear them at his Green Mill gigs. And more often than not, I agree with him. Generally, I want my knee bouncing involuntarily as I lean into the music from my barstool; I want to be suppressing the urge to snap my fingers to the sheer energy of some breakneck-paced sax solo, straining to keep up with where it’s going.

But then there are those other times. Like last Saturday afternoon when I was pulling things together in the kitchen to start marinating the beef for this week’s post on stew. Outside the kitchen window I could see big fat snowflakes falling, piling up in my neighbor’s yard. It was a day made for simple chores and quiet introspection. Still, I dropped some avant garde jazz into the Kitchen boombox—Blue Universe Trio’s NYC Free Jazz, an obscure, probably self-produced disk given to me by the bassist’s uncle with a “you like this sort of thing, don’t you?” I do. A lot. But halfway through the first track, I popped it back out and put on this disk instead.

Dexter Gordon’s album Ballads is a collection of eight tunes culled from as many different albums, recorded mostly in the early 60s, with the lone live track being recorded in 1978. The personnel varies from track to track—sometimes there’s a trumpet, sometimes a piano, sometimes both. Six different drummers and seven different bassists play on this album. But thanks to Gordon’s unmistakable smoky tenor sax, it all hangs together beautifully.

Gordon embraced bebop completely and was one of its key figures. Some even include him among its founders. That’s not always apparent as you listen to these ballads. He spends a lot of time coloring within the lines, sticking close to the melody line—embellishing it beautifully, to be sure, but not often straying far. But then suddenly, he stretches out and takes you unexpected places. That’s when Ballads shines for me.

Probably the best track on the entire disk for me is, ironically enough, one of the jazz standards I’ve grown the weariest of: Body and Soul. But drummer Eddie Gladden and bassist Rufus Reid lift it out of its usual sultry torpor with an insistent, syncopated beat that invites Gordon and pianist George Cables to wander way far afield. Even when Gordon is playing pretty close to the melody, his hard, muscular notes strain to break away. The track is a generous 17 minutes long, and it keeps covering new ground and bringing the listener right along with it. Late in the track, it sounds as if everyone’s bringing it home; but suddenly it morphs into a nearly four-minute tenor solo, the other musicians silent as Gordon weaves and invents and flirts with the melody. Absolutely brilliant.

There are a couple of ways to listen to this album. One is actively, listening to all the many nuances as I did Saturday afternoon. I am never the speediest of prep cooks—I wouldn’t last a day in a professional kitchen. But as the snow fell outside my kitchen window, I positively dawdled, savoring the smells and textures of the food, the weight of the knife in my hand, as the music filled the room. Then Sunday evening, as we had friends over for one of our not frequent enough Sunday dinners, Ballads became a beautiful, unhurried backdrop to conversation, clinking wine glasses and the clatter of china around the table. Again, absolutely brilliant.

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