My latest pick in my game of “Desert Island Discs” is one that definitely feels like I am getting bonus miles out of my choice. If my last choice seemed like cheating, with Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, and Max Roach all on one album, this time I have rewritten the rulebook. If you remember, the previous five albums I would want if stranded on a desert island were:
Album number six is “Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard” by Dexter Gordon, documenting Dexter’s triumphant 1976 return from Europe. This album has Dexter on tenor saxophone, and he is playing with the great trumpeter Woody Shaw and his working small group. To top it off, it is a live DOUBLE album. We get to hear the players stretch out with longer solos, and play with the electricity of a live audience.
Gordon had lived in Europe for 15 years prior to this recording, only visiting the United States occasionally. More than a few jazz musicians spent time in Europe during the 60’s and 70’s. Like many of them, Dexter felt he was better appreciated as an artist overseas, and felt less overt racism, as he avoided the racial tensions in 1960’s America. He stayed away so long in fact, that the owner of the Village Vanguard was afraid audiences would not remember him. If the performances made money, the club would pay the band, but if no one came, the tour manager was going to have to pay the musicians out of her own money! This arrangement was not a big vote of confidence.
Acoustic jazz was in a sad state in 1976. Miles Davis was playing electric rock-jazz fusion. Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and many others were recording with electric groups. Coltrane was gone, and his posthumous bank of recordings was dwindling. Long Tall Dexter’s homecoming to New York was not a guaranteed success. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to record his live performance. Columbia released the album in 1977, as the record company started to believe there was a market for acoustic jazz.
The opening tune on the album is named “Gingerbread Boy”, and on it you can clearly hear Dexter quote “Here Comes the Bride” as he begins the fifth blues chorus of his solo. This is one of those inside jokes that even the live audience might not understand. Why did he quote that in the middle of the solo? Did his wife walk in the club at that moment, or the wife of the club owner? Was there a waitress with a “Bride of Frankenstein” hairdo that the band had been joking about? Was Woody Shaw teasing the older musician about how he should incorporate more fourths in his soloing, like the young lions of the day? Unfortunately, this tune isn’t available on YouTube, but you can listen to the album at Spotify for free.
The two videos I can find from this album are below. On the first, you can hear Dexter’s idiosyncratic habit of reciting the lyrics of a tune before the band plays.
The second is the classic Thelonious Monk tune ‘Round Midnight.
Woody Shaw was the trumpet player on this recording, and a couple of his original compositions are included on the album. Woody was a brilliant musician, possessing a photographic memory as well as perfect pitch. He always recorded with acoustic groups, never following the electric-fusion trends of the 1970’s. Woody was a fabulous, innovative soloist and jazz composer. I would recommend any album you find by Woody Shaw. Tragically, he died in 1989 from health complications following an accident where he was hit by a subway car. Woody was losing his sight from a degenerative eye disease, and the details surrounding the accident are murky. There may have even been an element of intentional self-harm on Woody’s part. His death was a great loss to the world of music.
The month of July is going to be dedicated to writing about American composers to celebrate Independence Day. I will return with the last two picks in this Jazz series of Desert Island Discs in August. That gives me some time to ponder my last two choices. Stay tuned!