Friday, March 26, 2010

March 26: Dexter Gordon, "Cheese Cake"

Artist: Dexter Gordon
Song: "Cheese Cake"
Album: Go
Year: 1962


For an artist to "reinvent" themselves is without question one of the most rare and truly unpredictable feats that can be accomplished.  As trends and styles change, an overwhelming majority of artists slip away from being relevant, and are only followed by the most devoted of fans.  However, every once in awhile, and artist is somehow able to find success a second time, and the way in which this is achieved is so random and rare, that it is impossible to make any sort of general statement on "how" this is achieved.  Yet even with this "reinvention" being such an anomaly, there is in fact one artist who accomplished this feat not once, but three times.  Standing as one of the most important figures in the entire history of jazz music, one can almost follow the rise and fall of jazz trends through the unparalleled recordings of the one and only Dexter Gordon.  From his early days, backing everyone from Nat King Cole to Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie, to his later years, in which he was one of the more controversial performers due to his personal life, there were simply no other tenor saxophone players of the "bop era" that played as beautifully or as brilliantly as the man they called "Long Tall Dexter."  While his early recordings are unquestionably fantastic, there are few studio recordings that carry the same power and feel as his monumental 1962 recording, Go.  Backed by an equally fantastic band, Go features some of Dexter Gordon's most stunning moments, and few jazz recordings bring the same impact and soul as one finds in the albums' lead track, "Cheese Cake."

Without question, the most intriguing aspect of all of Go is the amazing mood which is created by the quartet.  Truth be told, each song has an absolutely stunning live feel, and there are times when it seems almost inconceivable that this is a studio session.  This serves as a testament to the extraordinary talent and chemistry between the four musicians, and it is one of the main reasons that the album remains in such vaulted status all these decades later.  Though one can easily understand that this mood is largely due to the players involved, one cannot overlook the fact that the record was produced by Blue Note Records founder, Alfred Lion, and this surely played some role in the albums' unparalleled mood.  Standing today as one of the most important and dynamic jazz drummers in history, Billy Higgins rarely sounded better than he does on "Cheese Cake," as the loose, heavily improvisational way in which he plays is a perfect backbeat for Gordon and the other players.  Having played alongside everyone from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock, bassist Butch Warren remains in many ways the "ultimate" bassman, as he rarely solos, yet provides what can only be labeled as "ideal" playing, and his steady, grooving progression is one of the keys to the allure of "Cheese Cake."  The final member of Dexter Gordon's backing band on Go was pianist Sonny Clark, and it is largely the interaction between these two jazz giants that makes "Cheese Cake" such an unforgettable tune.  Pulling heavy influence from Bud Powell, Clark's playing remains some of the hardest, yet most swing-laden in jazz history, and there has simply never been another pianist quite like him.  The way in which these musicians work alongside Gordon is truly sensational, and it is clear throughout "Cheese Cake" that the quartet is as "locked in" as any other group in music history.

Though he certainly did himself a favor by surrounding himself with some of the greatest players in jazz history, there is never and question at any point on "Cheese Cake" that Dexter Gordon is the featured artist.  Immediately deploying the songs' key phrasing, the composition remains one of the most memorable and impressive of Gordon's entire career, and he rarely sounded as comfortable or confident as he does here.  Furthermore, as the first track on the album, it sets an amazing precedent, and this level of excitement and musicianship never lessens anywhere on Go.  The way in which Gordon rephrases and winds around the core riff is nothing short of sensational, and in many ways, one need to only hear "Cheese Cake" once to fully understand why Dexter Gordon remains such an important figure in the history of jazz music.  These alterations and improvisations highlight Gordon's notorious ability to hold his own with any jazz player, and his creativity and sheer emotion are also highlighted on "Cheese Cake."  Another key aspect of the overall impact of "Cheese Cake" is the bright energy which emanates from Gordon's saxophone.  The fact that the entire band seems to be constantly pushing the song forward, it is almost impossible to tell if Higgins is trying to keep up with Gordon's lines, or vice versa.  Though he rarely leaves the core riff entirely, the various ways in which Dexter Gordon re-works the phrasing shows off his amazing ability to create on the spot, and "Cheese Cake" remains one of the most unique and enjoyable jazz compositions in history.

Though he is nearly always mentioned as a "second tier" player, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Dexter Gordon.  As one of the key figures in pushing the genre forward, Gordon found ways to re-invent his sound over his career which spanned five decades.  Without question one of the most important figures to emerge from the bop scene, Gordon remains one of the few artists that was as relevant during the height of jazz as he was during the rise of disco.  This ability to appeal to such wide ranges in culture and mindset is one of the keys to the sound of Dexter Gordon, and many of his records are just as exciting and intriguing today as they were when they were first released.  Standing high atop this list is his 1962 effort, Go, which more than four decades later, still teems with energy and the creativity found therein remains largely unrivaled.  Backed by three of the most impressive, yet largely unsung players in jazz history, one can make the case that the magnificence of Go may be in large part due to the fact that all four musicians can be seen as "underdogs," and therefore, the lack of expectations allowed them to freely create exactly as they pleased.  The resulting music was in many ways the "second coming" of Dexter Gordon, and it solidified his place as one of the greats of the jazz genre, as it is largely his playing and position as band leader that makes this recording so fantastic.  Standing as the albums' finest moment, as well as one of the most extraordinary compositions and performances of his entire career, one need look no further than "Cheese Cake" to fully understand and appreciate the unparalleled talent that was the great Dexter Gordon.

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