Dexter Gordon is back, and American jazz fans are delighted - especially since "Long Tall Dexter" has brought his robust, resonant saxophone sound with him. Now 54, the man who adapted Charlie Parker's bebop language to the tenor sax can be heard blowing as strong and playful as ever on "Homecoming," a new double-record "live" set that just may be the best mainstream jazz effort released this year.
For those who grew up in the '60s listening to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Gordon's reappearance on the U.S. scene may come as something of a revelation. Though an important part of the bop revolution, Gordon has been a figure more heard of than seen since the '50s: He spent a good part of that decade fighting a heroin addiction or in prison, and since 1962 he's mostly been overseas, living in Copenhagen with his Danish wife and touring in American only intermitently.
But with "Homecoming" (Columbia PG 34650), Gordon, who tonight opens a week-long engagement at the Show-boat Louge in Silver Spring, returns as a vital presence. He hasn't just refined his technique and style in the years he's been based in Europe, he's extended it, and "Homecoming" gives him the chance to show that he's something more than another returned "old master." This is a very swinging, very modern set.
Some of the credit for that must go to the quartet that performs with Gordon here and gets much - perhaps too much - of the solo time. Led by trumpeter Woody Shaw, who wrote two of the album's eight tunes, and solos brilliantly on several occasions, they're young and, despite and noticeably weaker playing and writing of pianist Ronnie Mathews, quite well-versed in bop and post-bop styles.
Shaw's churningly aggressive "Little Red's Fantasy" offers Gordon the best opportunity to demonstrate that his gigantic, metallic tenor sound and surging rhythmic drive are still intact. Like "In Case You Haven't Heard," the other Shaw number, it's also a reminder that the rapid flurries of notes and sudden honks found in Coltrane's and Sonny Rollins' playing have their origins in a solo device Gordon has been using for years.
This energy may flow from Gordon's athletic body - he's 6-feet-5 and weights 225 pounds - or his boundless imagination, but wherever it comes from, it's impressive. At nearly 14 minutes, the fast-paced "It's You Or No One" is the longest tune on the album, yet Gordon bursts out of the gate with a bright, powerful melody line and never lets up, firing off riffs and phrases with a strength and abandon that is reminiscent of some of his earliest recordings.
Another characteristic that's remained unchanged is that wonderfully puckish sense of humor. As Robert Palmer points out in the liner notes for "Homecoming," Gordon is known as "A prankster who enjoys inserting little musical jokes . . . into the most passionate improvisations." Right at the start of a heady solo on the Jimmy Health blues "Gingerbread Boy," for example, there's a quote from "Here Comes the Bride"; later, on "Backstairs," the same figure just as unexpectedly reappears.
The more serious, more subdued side of Gordon's playing also gets an airing on "Homecoimg," especially during "Fenja," a Gordon original written for his wife, and "Round Midnight." Gordon treats the Thelonius Monk standard gently, building from a slow, smooth introudction remarkable for tis subtle phrasing to an eloquently elegant conclusion.
By Gordon's own calculation, the last time he gave a public performance in Washington was 1946 - about the time he recorded "Long Tall Dexter," a reissue album that is no less happy a blend of up-tempo numbers and ballads than "Homecoming." He was only 23 then, but as "Long Tall Dexter" (Savoy SJL 2211) shows, he had already developed the sound and style that was to prove so influential in the years ahead.
Two versions of the ballad "I Can't Escape From You" are contained on this double album, but the quintessential bebop numbers are the riff tunes - "Blow Mr. Dexter," "Dexter's Riff" and the title tune, in particular - with strong Parker and Lester Young influences. "It's the same line," said Gordon recently, "lester to Bird to Dexter to Trane." Now, with "Homecoing" and "Long Tall Dexter" available, the missing link is back in place.