EVEN TWO OR THREE years ago, when the revival of interest in jazz had already become a cliche, few could have predicted that tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon - past 50 years of age, and heard mostly on records in this country since moving to Denmark in 1962 - would become a minor American celebrity.
Now, of course, Gordon records for a major American company and a smaller European firm; he tours the U.S. for several months out of each year; he basks in the warmth of news-magazine profiles. And jazz writers have not been anxious to interfere with his new and too-long-deserved fame.
Homecoming (Columbia 34650) was a "live" set recorded at Gordon's triumphal December 1976 week at New York's Village Vanguard; it was also his debut for CBS Records. The set was spoiled by Louis Hayes's insensitive drumming; by Ronnie Matthews's dull and rigid piano; and by some ill-fitting pieces written not for Gordon, but for trumpeter Woody Shaw's band, Gordon's temporary group of the moment.
Somehow, Homecoming got the warmest of reviews. Perhaps those who praised it had merely forgotten the standard set by so many of Gordon's earlier blowing-session releases - The Apartment (Inner City), More Power (Prestige), or almost any of the classic Blue Note performances. Or was there a shrinking away from submitting bad notices that might have caused CBS to drop its first straight-ahead jazz artist since the sudden death of that company's jazz program in 1972?
Gordon's second for CBS is Sophisticated Giant (Columbia 34989), and it requires no apologies and no critical protections. The nightclub informality of Homecoming has been replaced by recording-studio neatness and ten-part arrangements by Slide Hampton; but the writing leaves large solo spaces, nearly half of which go to Gordon's majestic ballad readings and his broadly but musically humorous mid-tempo yarns. Among the other soloists, the younger US-based players contribute more than Gordon's fellow expatriates. Trombonist Hampton and trumpeter Benny Bailey sound rough next to versatile Woody Shaw, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson (an increasingly conservative but also more assured performer) and the powerful bassist Rufus Reid. If this record has a weakness, it lies in Hampton's slow arrangements for "Laura" and "You're Blase." Rather than writing for richness of color - not easy with such a small group, but possible - Hampton turns too often to involved high-register lines by piano, vibes and flute. Also, a light frosting of echo seems to have been added from the control board, substituting electric atmosphere for orchestral body, volts for violins. But at brighter tempi, Hampton's charts suit Sophisticated Giant's uneasy foothold between all-star jam and the sort of full-scale pop production that only a major company can bring off.
True Blue (Xanadu 136) is all jam, and features Gordon with trumpeters Blue Mitchell and Sam Noto, pianist Barry Harris, and another tenorist - Al Cohn. Cohn is the first-billed but less-known half of a long partnership with saxophonist Zoot Sims, probably because Sims is a full-time performer while Cohn works regularly at commercial arranging.
Not a perfect session by any means - Louis Hayes is less busy than on Homecoming , but still not so useful as the businesslike Vic Lewis on Sophisticated Giant - True Blue nonetheless reaffirms the jam as a yardstick for the jazz performer. Noto and Mitchell together quite comfortably lay to rest the rumors that the bop brass tradition is dead, and Harris is heroically resourceful in every situation. The focus of interest, however, is the teaming of saxes. Gordon is leaner and more piercing in tone, more outlandish in his humor, and his contrast with Cohn's surface sobriety and cavernously dark sound - more often like a baritone than a tenor - is a renewing and almost constantly refreshing example of the variety available within a broad style.
But Silver Blue , on Xanadu 137, is a leftover from the True Blue session. Its "On the Trail," done as an unaccompanied Gordon-Cohn duet, jolts past many a dropped beat; and the rhythm section struggles through "Allen's Alley" with no point of agreement.
For more of Cohn and more of Harris - and better drumming by Leroy Williams - consult Al Cohn's America (Xanadu 138), a low-pressure recital that begins quite seriously with a bossa nova on "America the Beautiful" and ends quite wryly with a takeoff on Liszt. After all, if Gordon can satisfy so many, Cohn and others might not be far behind him.