The photo on the back of Dexter Gordon's new album, "American Classic," finds the tenor saxophonist taking a stroll. It's dusk, street lights are aglow, the Statue of Liberty looms large in the background.
The music on side one of "American Classic" presents a slightly different picture: It's after hours, the club is small, narrow and crowded, the music is nonstop bop, ballads and blues -- especially the blues. "If you can't play the blues," says Gordon in the brief and poorly recorded interview heard at the album's close, "you might as well forget it. . . All the music I heard 30 or 40 years ago is still in me -- a reservoir of sounds." "American Classic" taps a little of that reservoir.
Since resuming his recording career in the U.S., Gordon -- once the most celebrated of jazz expatriates -- has had the luxury of working with whoever he pleases. This time he's recruited organist Shirley Scott, whose gentle fills and cresting choruses lend the album its after-hours groove, and soprano saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. Washington may not be Sidney Bechet when it comes to baring his soul, but his playing is in keeping with Dexter's mood, and the low- keyed performances are a welcome departure from some of Washington's more superfluous pop/jazz recordings.
Gordon quickly stakes out some familiar ground for his guests: Jay McShann's "Jumpin' Blues" is given a boppish tint, a treatment that allows everyone an extended stay in the spotlight before the saxophones entwine in a slowly spiraling fade; "Besame Mucho," with its dark Latin tinge, is a natural for both Gordon and Scott, while "For Soul Sister," a Gordon original, proves just how compatible Gordon and Washington can be.
Side two reunites Gordon with his regular trio -- pianist Kirk Lightsey, drummer Eddie Gladden and bassist David Eubanks (the last two also appear on side one). Here, the highlight is a lengthy, haunting version of "Skylark." Whether probing the melody, expanding upon it or dropping a felicitous quote from another tune in mid-chorus, Gordon's playing is always worthy of the title "American Classic."
An equally abiding respect for tradition combined with an adventuresome spirit is what the trio Air is all about. Air's latest album, "80 Below '82," includes a spry interpretation of Jelly Roll Morton's "Chicago Breakdown," with its jaunty melody serving as a springboard to inspired improvisation. Beyond establishing an almost conversational rapport among the musicians -- bassist Fred Hopkins, drummer Steve McCall and alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill -- the album also documents Threadgill's developing skills as a composer. His "Do Tell" best illustrates the cohesiveness of Air, its exploratory spirit and its reluctance to indulge in the random playing that mars so many "avant garde" jazz recordings. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUMS DEXTER GORDON, American Classic (Elektra Musicians E1-60126). AIR, 80 Below '82 (Antilles AN10007). THE SHOWS DEXTER GORDON, next Tuesday through Sunday at Blues Alley. AIR, Saturday at D.C. Space at 10, 11:30, and 1 a.m.